The Last Romantics by Tara Conklin || SPOILER FREE BOOK REVIEW ||

Overall Grade: A+


“Poets can speak in ways that transcend culture and gender and time. Films and novels remain rooted in their age, give or take a century. But poetry? Tell me The Canterbury Tales doesn’t still make you laugh and Keats make you cry. And, my dear girl Luna, why did your mother name you what she did? You asked about the real Luna. You asked about my inspiration. All of my work from, The Love Poem to The Last, The Pond, Mothers and Fathers, even The Last Romantic, derived from my brother and my sisters, my first and greatest loves.”

The Last Romantics by Tara Conklin is a powerhouse of a book. The narrative is a family epic, told by our protagonist, Fiona Skinner, a world famous poet in the year 2079, recounting to a fan at an event of hers, the story behind her most famous poem, The Love Poem. What unfurls is a story that spans centuries, about her and her three siblings, and the unbreakable love of family. I couldn’t put this book down. I was so consumed with the narrative and the characters. I found myself so deeply engrossed in their lives and stories, Conklin has a gift of getting you to care for a character immediately, there were some characters who were only present for a few paragraphs, but she wrote them into existence with such depth and skill that I felt their absence like an ache.

Of course, while I adored this book, I had some issues with it and I want to get those out of the way first. They are as such. Firstly, Fiona, our narrator, is narrating stories to us that she in no way could’ve known and an explanation as to how she knows these things is never given. I found this insistence on staying in first person when it made no logical sense to do so really took me out of it sometimes. Fiona is even able to narrate what her loved ones see before they die, this kind of all knowing power isn’t explained through magical realism, we, the reader, are just supposed to believe that, somehow, Fiona knows all. Another small gripe with Fiona is early in the book she’s reading heavy classics like War of the Worlds when she’s four years old, but it is latter made clear that she’s not a genius of any kind, so again, that jarring small fact took me from the story for a bit.

My final issue with this book, is it is VERY straight and white. Now I am queer myself, but I’m in no way suggesting every story has to feature queer leads, I do feel however, that a narrative taking place in modern day and then the future, that spans nearly a century, and crosses multiple state lines, having main characters who NEVER encounter a single queer individual is statistically impossible. As for it being very white, there are two characters of color; a black woman, Nadene, who is only present for one chapter and serves more as a plot device than a character. And then there is Luna, a latina woman who is actually incredibly important to the narrative, and though she is only present for a few chapters, she feels deeply and thoughtfully constructed as a full-fledged character. But this is hardly a realistic level of diversity for a story set primarily in New York City and Miami.

I understand the three sisters being straight was vital to the story, because so much of their plot lines dealt with female sexuality in regards to attraction to men, and how we are raised and conditioned as young women to react to such things. That doesn’t mean however that no one could’ve known a queer person. Also doesn’t mean there had to be a cast of only white people save for two.

Now, all that said, I did LOVE this book, and while those things irked me slightly my reading experience wasn’t lessened by them, so please don’t think I’m trying to put you off of The Last Romantics because I am NOT, I want to put you onto it because it was glorious.

Some things I loved: Fiona is supposed to be one of the world’s greatest poets when the story begins, but we never actually get to read a single one of her poems, and as a poet myself, I love this choice on Conklin’s end for several reasons, firstly being that when fiction writers with no poetry experience write characters who are poets and try to disperse poetry into their novel, it tends to read badly and obvious that said author isn’t a studied poet. Secondly, we are told throughout this whole text how brilliant and one of a kind The Love Poem is, so any poem written by Conklin wouldn’t have compared to what fictional Fiona Skinner wrote. We never get to read the poem, instead we get the story behind it, and from that we must work to imagine how Fiona crafted such a long, rich, and sometimes tragic life into a poem so life-altering people in this world named their children after characters from the piece. 

I loved the honest and raw portrayal of what it is like to have siblings. I have a brother and sister myself, and I found such truth and accuracy in the way Conklin wove these relationships throughout the story. It is not picture perfect, easy friendship, it is work. It is brittle and hard and challenging, but it never dies, not if you try hard enough.

I loved Fiona, she was so honest and raw, and I like that we learned who she was by learning about the people that mattered to her. In actuality, so little of this book follows Fiona’s personal life, it is mostly about her three siblings, because as she herself says, they are her great loves, they are the story behind The Love Poem, and it is their story we the reader must understand if we wish to understand Fiona Skinner.

I adored this book with my whole heart and despite its flaws, it truly is a singular masterpiece that I cannot recommend enough. 

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Enchantée by Gita Trelease || SPOILER FREE BOOK REVIEW ||

Overall Grade: C-


This book was rather disappointing. It sounded so promising, a young magician living in poverty on the cusp of the French revolution, uses glamour magic to moonlight as an aristocrat in the gambling dens of Versailles in order to make enough money to save her and her younger sister from starvation and their drunken brother’s abuse. But magic takes a physical toll in this world, and the stakes are higher than you’d think. At least that’s how the book is marketed. It delivers on none of these promises.

Our protagonist, Camille, is extremely bland. Her entire character is made up of flashbacks. Sporadic memories of her childhood are all we get to convey who she is, how she might act in the present is completely inconsistent. Honestly, every other character besides her was more fleshed out and believable. 

For a book set before the French revolution, said revolution had almost nothing to do with the book. Rogue comments would be made by characters throughout the book about the class struggles, and Camille’s internal monologue was constantly reminding us that she was poor, but that was really it. It also felt like the author, Gita Trelease, does not have a positive opinion of the late Marie Antoinette–the reviled queen, who’s true story is often lost to history, (check out episode 3 of my web series, HERstory if you wish to know more about the real story of Marie Antoinette) is shown in this text as the most cartoonish and stereotypical version of the queen you could find. Scenes where Marie Antoinette was present almost felt like snippets of hate propaganda from her time. Yet in the historical note at the end of the book the author recommends a biography on Marie Antoinette, by Antonia Fraser, a biography that paints the late Queen in a more rounded out and positive light, so the fact that this author enjoyed that biography but still chose to portray Marie Antoinette as a vapid idiot with no care for the poor, not only goes against many historical findings that disprove such a notion, also just read as incredibly boring. Why even include her as a character on the page if she was going to be so painfully two-dimensional?

This book also low-key shamed sex workers in the first act. We learn that women in France often turned to prostitution to make ends meets, but this was common all throughout 18th century Europe, and France wasn’t even the place such a trade was most popular, but rather England was at the time. We hear Camille make endless comments in the first few chapters about how vile prostitution is and how she’d never do it. I don’t think Trelease understands the difference between sex slavery, and sex positive women working in the sex trade. I highly recommend the show Harlots on Hulu for a more nuanced and mature look at such a topic.

Also the fact that we need to believe as the reader that Camille must go to Versailles and gamble in order to make money never really makes much sense because no other line of work is introduced. We know she worked as a printer’s apprentice when her father was alive and after his death no longer could, and we know that she won’t be a prostitute, and that’s about it. I understand that jobs were hard to come by during this period of history, but such an obstacle is never addressed. We see her younger sister easily get a job and start earning a fair wage, so why can’t Camille? What is so detrimental in her attempts to get work that she must turn to magic and gambling? 

Other things that fell flat in this book: the love interest, possibly the most boring love interest I’ve ever read. He was a balloonist and a secret aristocrat who struggled at court for being mixed race. All of this sounds like it would make for an interesting story and character arc, but it doesn’t. 

The “villain” of the story gives a villain speech at the end, alluding to us, the reader, that he’d laid so many clues for us to follow when really it all mostly comes out of nowhere and he’s defeated within several pages so none of the peril he puts the main characters in even has time to land an impact before it’s INCREDIBLY EASILY resolved. 

And while the whole book seemed to be preaching about the struggles of being poor and the horrors of the class divides in France, which is not a new take at all and wasn’t handled in any kind of fresh or interesting way, ended up not mattering in the end because everyone got money and lived happily ever after. The impending revolution was an after thought, we hear about the attack on the Bastille, but there are no repercussions for our characters. And that’s basically the thesis of this whole book: things could go wrong, but don’t worry, they won’t.

In the end, the book is a whole lot of tedious build up for a lukewarm payoff. I enjoyed it sporadically, there’d be a few chapters where I’d really be vibing with it, but then it would crumble again and the fact that the plot made no sense and had no direction and the main character felt like a character outline as opposed to a person I could connect with, would become glaringly obvious. This book had a thrilling premise and what seemed like a lot of potential, but ultimate fails at all of it. 

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde || SPOILER FREE BOOK REVIEW ||

OVERALL GRADE: A-


The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde is the first book in a literary sci-fi/fantasy detective series. The world the reader finds themselves in is presented as a science fiction alternate version of 1985 London, but the elements of the story toe the line into straight up fantasy. Also, while the book is the first in a series, it actually requires a lot of prior reading to fully understand the plot. As you probably guessed from the title, Jane Eyre is a must read for this book. Other pieces of literature that are helpful to know to get the full range of this story are, Martin Chuzzelwit, and probably Richard III. Needless to say, this book is for literary geeks, and really no one else. I’ve read accounts of people who have no classical literary knowledge reading this book and saying they didn’t love it, and I think it’s evident as to why. But, Jane Eyre is one of my all time favorite books, so I knew I had to read this. 

In this story we follow Thursday Next, she works as a LiteraTec, a type of literary police force. In this alternate history where time travel is possible, and common, a lot of famous historical events never happened, people don’t know who Churchill is, but EVERYONE knows who John Milton is. In this alternate world there is a heavy literary pop-culture scene where people change their names to Percy Bysshe Shelley, Shakespeare performances are attended with the same gusto and audience participation as a Rocky Horror Picture Show screening, people dine at Cheshire Cat bars and must answer riddles to receive their drinks. And some people, a very rare few, that Thursday is a part of, have the ability to read themselves into books. Thursday reads herself into Jane Eyre and affects the narrative for the better. See, in this alternate history, Jane Eyre does not follow the canonical chain of events it does out here in the real world, so when Thursday goes in, she’s able to strengthen the narrative into the epic love story we adore today.

But Thursday only goes into Jane’s story once, as a child, she doesn’t go again until adulthood when Jane is kidnapped from the pages of her own book by renowned literary criminal, Acheron Hades. Thursday uses a new piece of literary technology that allows anyone to go into any book, to go help Mr. Rochester save Jane, and the beloved story we know so well.

This book was brilliant. Fforde presented the world the way I wish it was. It pains me that I can’t just fangirl about literary classics with people on a regular basis. There are no literary bars, or Milton poetry conferences, or Rocky Horror-esque Shakespeare shows, out here in reality. And we certainly can’t read ourselves into books, but how I ached for such a possibility as a child, and sometimes still do.

I loved Thursday as a character, she felt like what Jane would be in the modern world. I loved this wacky alternate history world full of literary travel, and time travel. I loved all the literary references, and how you could talk to a bartender about Shakespeare authorship conspiracies the way you could talk about Game of Thrones Sundays in the real world.

The only drawback for me, was the establishment of the world building in Fforde’s novel was rather pitiful. If you’re going to utilize time travel as a long form literary element then you need to really explain that and make it understandable. Even campy shows like Doctor Who do this. But 99% of the time that time travel elements were taking place in the book I did not understand what was going on, or any of the intricacies of how things worked, and was left wondering how things panned out. The same went for the literary travel, there were certain parts of the story that I just couldn’t understand how they fit together based on the vague rules that were barely established by the author. it almost felt at times like this was the second or third book in a series and Fforde was presenting me with information I was already supposed to have a firm grasp on. Such tactics work wonderfully in short stories, but I personally think read like a car crash in novel-length work. 

There was also a LOT of random plot lines that were unnecessary and wrapped up way too easily within the last five pages. Literally five pages. Which read kind of amateur and sloppy to me.

And my final complaint, calling this The Eyre Affair is honestly a huge misnomer. Mentions of the book Jane Eyre don’t even happen till almost 100 pages in, and the actual event of kidnapping Jane and Thursday jumping into her book, which mind you are advertised as the MAIN PLOT POINT of this novel, do not happen until the LAST 70 pages of the book. This misleading advertising left me a little underwhelmed and anxious halfway through the book, wondering when the hell the promised Jane Eyre plot was going to come into play.

None of this is to say that I didn’t adore the book, because I did. I don’t see myself continuing with the Thursday Next series, but I’m glad I read this one. You can never get enough Jane Eyre.

5 Great Re-tellings Not Enough People Talk About

1.The Search for WondLa by Tony Diterlizzi

The Search for WondLa is a loose re-telling of L. Frank Baum’s Wonderful Wizard of Oz. In a far off future, we follow young, Eva Nine as she makes her way to earth’s surface for the first time in her life, after having spent her entire life raised in a bunker underground by a robot caregiver. But when Eva reaches the surface, everything is not what it seems and it turns out she’s not in Kansas anymore–or rather, she’s not on Earth anymore. Eva, and her robot companion travel across the strange new land in search of some answers, and along the way they acquire a motley cast of characters. While the book doesn’t hit the exact action points of Baum’s modern fairytale, the overall theme and feel of the book is undoubtedly that of Dorothy Gale’s wonder when she first stepped onto the yellow brick road.

2. Wintersong by S. Jae-Jones

Wintersong retells MANY things: The David Bowie film, Labyrinth, Germanic goblin folklore, the origin story of Mozart–but the main thread of the story is a retelling of poet, Christina Rossetti’s famous poem, The Goblin Market. In Jae-Jones’ novel, the question is asked: what if one of the sisters never escaped the goblin grove? What then? And thus a story of sensual, and intoxicating proportions unfolds. There is a sequel to Wintersong, but it’s very disappointing and undoes all of the great, dark faery-lore of the first one, so I recommend reading Wintersong as a standalone.

3. The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

The Silence of the Girls retells the Achilles and Agamemnon myth of the final battle of Troy, but from the point of view of the concubine they fight over–Briseis. Greek myths and legends like to gloss over the facts about how abused the women were (especially when the stories are cataloged and translated by men). Barker’s book dismantles this structure of silence, and crafts a tale that unapologetically throws the reader into the middle of the hellish landscape Briseis and thousands of other women are living in–as sex slaves in a rape camp. While this story is based off a myth, rape camps are a very real part of war, and have happened throughout history. Barker brings this long-silenced plight to the forefront, and paints the Greek heroes, as the abusive rapists they actually were.

4. Conversion by Katherine Howe

Katherine Howe is a skilled historical fiction writer, and this witchy YA book of hers does not disappoint. Conversion retells the Salem Witch trials through a modern lens. What WOULD we do if a bunch of young girls we knew got violently and unexplainably sick? How would we explain the unexplainable? If a woman came to us and confessed she was a witch with supernatural powers working for the devil, cursing the girls to sickness, how would we react? Is human nature so animalistic that we would revert back to the violent and cruel mob-mentality that plagued Salem all those years ago? 

5. Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce

When it comes to YA fairytale re-tellings, Marissa Meyer is often the first name to come to mind, but long before The Lunar Chronicles, there was Sisters Red, a story about two sisters fighting werewolves, in their signature red cloaks. This story draws heavily from the original French folktale of Little Red Riding Hood, cataloged by folklorist Achille Millien, in which the wolf was in fact a werewolf. It is never made clear in this original folktale if the wolf came to Red in the form of a man or not, which makes the undertones of sexual violence all the more apparent. Pearce’s story plays with these dark themes with a skilled hand. There are also Chinese versions of the Little Red Riding Hood tale, that feature there being sisters instead of one lone girl, this is evident in Pearce’s work as well, seeing the story focusses on not one Red Hood, but a set of sisters. Sisters Red is in my opinion THE Little Red Riding Hood Retelling to read.

Buy My Newest Poetry Zine!

pink roses is my third zine of poetry. It features 6 original poems never before seen on this blog, my YouTube, or in any of my prior publications. All the poems deal with the nature of the world and the nature of humans. Below is the opening poem–hylophobia–to help give you a taste for what you’ll encounter within its pages should you purchase a copy.

Zines are for sale over on my depop! Either @ magicalmolly on the depop app or go to http://www.depop.com/magicalmolly
T
hey’re $6 for a physical copy and $3 for a digital PDF copy (only shipping physical copies within the U.S. due to international postage rates being too high for my poor self)

100% of the proceeds go towards funding future episodes of my docu-web series, Hidden History


Book Review: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson || SPOILER FREE ||

Overal Grade: A+

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is a nonfiction book, written by journalist, Jon Ronson, that aims to answer two questions: 1. WHY do we shame each other so relentlessly online over minute things that are not crimes and most of the time aren’t even hurting anyone? And 2. Is it okay that we do this? Is it okay that we ruin lives over poorly worded tweets, and ill-thought-out joke photos?

The book follows this two-fold line of thought through real-life stories of public shamings throughout time. Some of the better know modern digitally public shamings mentioned in the book are the plagiarism and lies of pop-science author, Jonah Lehrer, the poorly-worded AIDs tweet by PR rep, Justine Sacco, the stupid joke photo at a soldiers’ grave site taken by caregiver, Lindsey Stone, and so on. These stories are chronicled in very compelling ways. At times it felt more like a true-crime novel than a nonfiction explorative text, and that certainly was fun for me. I couldn’t put it down which rarely happens for me with nonfiction. 

We meet these casts of characters through Jon’s eyes as he flies across the globe to talk one-on-one with these shamees and try to get to the bottom of why we do this to one another, and is it okay? 

It becomes crystal clear early on in the book that, no, it’s not okay at all that we do this. A bad joke shouldn’t ruin every single aspect of your life. But what are the nuances here? Should people get of scot free for insensitive material? Jon handles this complex set of questions with an incredibly deft hand, empathetic heart, and honest voice. 

And while not being blatantly ‘bleeding heart liberal’ about it (though I love me anything bleeding heart liberal) Jon gestures to the facts that if you’re a woman, a person of color, or poor, you have a much higher chance of enduring a relentless and cruel shaming than if you’re a rich white man. In some cases he investigates, men get off without a scratch for the same thing that lands a woman violent rape threats in the thousands. 

I somewhat wished there had been a chapter (or maybe even a whole separate book) about

women’s shamings, because there is absolutely no denying that it they are worse than men’s. This was made clear in multiple parts of the book where women were shamed much worse than men within the same situation. Jon even tells the story of a rape victim shamed publicly in court to the point where she took her own life.

I felt myself truly feeling for the people at the center of these shamings, and like Jon, asking myself throughout the book what kind of shamings had I taken part in in my life? And at what times had I been shamed myself?

I HAVE been publicly shamed myself, several times, but I was lucky enough that they didn’t last that long and they didn’t clutter my google search results.

This book is a mirror being held up to our society, and the reflection is not pretty. I know I’ve shamed people online, and a lot of the time it’s been over stupid shit where my 2 cents were not needed. It’s one thing to shame Republican politicians for putting children in internment camps, or bragging about sexually assaulting women, it’s another to shame someone for something as minute and of such little consequence as a dumb joke you, yourself didn’t find particularly funny or in good taste.

When Jon reaches the point of the books conclusion that explains WHY we do this, it’s not shocking at all, it’s sadly obvious, we’ve just been oblivious the whole time.

This is an excellent book, one that I think is very topical for out society today, yes it came out a few years ago, but sadly it’s more relevant than ever.