Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

Shades of Milk and Honey
Mary Robinette Kowal

I’ve been eying this book since last year, particularly after this review at The Book Pushers when I basically realized that this was a regency romance with magic in it. When it was nominated for the Nebula Awards, I joined the Nebula Readathon at The Book Smugglers as an excuse to read this.
The Premise: (I’m going to go with the book blurb on this one) Shades of Milk and Honey is an intimate portrait of Jane Ellsworth, a woman ahead of her time in a version of Regency England where the manipulation of glamour is considered an essential skill for a lady of quality. But despite the prevalence of magic in everyday life, other aspects of Dorchester’s society are not that different: Jane and her sister Melody’s lives still revolve around vying for the attentions of eligible men.
Jane resists this fate, and rightly so: while her skill with glamour is remarkable, it is her sister who is fair of face, and therefore wins the lion’s share of the attention. At the ripe old age of twenty-eight, Jane has resigned herself to being invisible forever. But when her family’s honor is threatened, she finds that she must push her skills to the limit in order to set things right–and, in the process, accidentally wanders into a love story of her own.”
Read an excerpt of Shades of Milk and Honey here
My Thoughts: This book really feels like a big ol’ homage to regency romances of Jane Austen’s era. From the get-go I was struck by how regency-eque Shades of Milk and Honey was and how often it uses the same conventions as Jane Austen’s stories. We begin by being introduced to the Ellsworths, a respected family with two daughters, a hysterical mother, and a doting father who would like nothing more than to see his daughters happily settled. Jane is the sensible and somewhat plain older sister, and at twenty-eight she’s resigned herself to being on the shelf. Melody is the pretty one, and at eighteen she has a much higher chance of getting married, but as the younger sister, she’s also more impulsive and reckless than Jane. The Ellsworths spend most of their time visiting their friends nearby and going to parties, and proper manners are always assumed. Sounds familiar no? Yes, it’s like a mix of every Jane Austen novel out there. Jane Austen era spellings like ‘shew’, ‘chuse’, ‘teaze’ and ‘nuncheon’ to add to that feel.
What makes Shades of Milk and Honey not just a remix of Austen, is the idea of glamour, a type of small magic that is used for pretty illusions. With glamour, a lady may create a subtle scent in the air, embellish a painting, record and play music, and even enhance her own appearance. There is no end to its uses, although it is considered mainly an artistic skill, not a dangerous one. It is a skill of high merit in well-bred ladies of society, much like the ability to play music or paint.
Jane is particularly skilled at glamour. I was hoping that Jane’s skill in glamour would be more essential to the story than it was, but it seems to be merely there as an interesting skill that gains Jane admiration from those around her. In fact, it is the quality that she is most admired for, and her sister harbors some jealousy because of it, despite her own pretty face and easy grace, which Jane lacks. There’s a bit of sisterly competition when it comes to men because of the their differences. Both girls share an admiration for a neighbor, Mr. Dunkirk, and he is a point of contention, despite never giving either sister a reason to hope. At times, the little jabs at each other got a little nasty, at others they are remorseful for their previous behavior. It was a bit of a see-saw, which I suppose shows the complications of sisterhood, but I wish their relationship was delved into a little further, beyond their little squabbles.
On the other hand, none of the relationships in this book were delved into. The story is very readable and I was easily drawn into Jane’s world, but beyond the social obligations and underlying drama of who may be courting who, I felt a lack of connection between Jane and the other characters. Jane feels more like an observer than a participant in this story. She watches as her sister flirts with gentlemen such as Mr. Dunkirk, and the newly returned Captain Livingston. She sees her mother go into yet another fit of hysteria and commiserate with similarly afflicted Mrs. Marchand. She wonders what secrets her friends Beth and Mr. Dunkirk are hiding. She wonders at the surly Mr. Vincent who creates beautiful works of glamour but doesn’t seem to like her very much. Internally she has a lot of thoughts about her glamour and what people around her are doing, but she doesn’t voice them. She doesn’t act until she is forced to by others, and about 75% into the book, I realized that I wasn’t really sure where the story was going. I felt like Shades of Milk and Honey was circling the airport. I wondered aloud “When are you bringing this baby in?”.
It’s not until she is drawn in by an unexpected suitor and by the threat of family ruin that the story really gets anywhere, and this happens far into the story. I did like where it went, but some of the excitement and interaction at the end of the book would have been nice to see in the rest of the story. I also felt like the romance Jane had was trying to replicate a Darcy and Elizabeth romance, with what looks like initial dislike becomes something more, but I must have missed the subtle growth of their relationship, because when the declarations of love happened, I really wasn’t sure why. Jane spends so little time with her eventual paramour, that the romance, while very sweet, didn’t feel backed up by emotional growth.
Overall: Shades of Milk and Honey reminds me of the stories of Jane Austen in that it has characters that spend their time visiting one another and going to parties, and proper manners are expected. It also has a lot of plot points that hark back to the Jane Austen books: sisterly bonds, strawberry picking, men after dowries, and secret engagements. I think that my love for this stuff kept me reading at a happy clip. For this alone, I’d call the book “good”, but beyond the Jane Austen trappings, I wanted more out of the characters and plot (and more out of the concept of glamour), so it didn’t move past being merely entertaining for me.
P.S. Does anyone know the significance of the title of this book? Is it a reference to the biblical phrase ” “a land flowing with milk and honey“? OK, that would make sense…
Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository
Other reviews:
Jawas Read, Too! – 8 (out of 10)
The Book Smugglers – 6 (good)
SFF Chat – “didn’t turn out to be exactly what I had been hoping for, it was a pleasurable way to pass a couple of hours”
The Book Pushers – 5 stars (out of 5)
Fantasy Book Critic – A- (“a very light novel that epitomizes “beach reading” for me”)
Christina_reads – Didn’t live up to expectations
Stella Matutina – 3.5 stars (really liked it)
I love this book trailer


Pride and Prejudice: A Latter Day Comedy

While looking around for modern day retellings of Pride and Prejudice I ran across the movie Pride and Prejudice: A Latter Day Comedy. It seemed like an odd combination but it looked cute. I couldn’t get it through netflix, but the whole thing seems to be up on youtube. Here’s the trailer:

Elizabeth Bennett is a college student in Utah who works part time in a bookstore and has dreams of publishing her book, the world’s only “Napoleonic Techno Fantasy”  (Heh, I’d read that).  She lives with four other girls. Jane is from Brazil and is Elizabeth’s best friend and roommate. Lydia is their landlord, and Kitty is Lydia’s younger sister. Mary is the awkward roommate.

Lydia and Kitty are devotees to “The Pink Bible” which is a popular self-help book about getting a man, and they plan to use it at a party at Charles Bingley’s house. This party is where we basically meet all the major characters and the story is set up. Of course Lydia is after Charles, but when he sets eyes on Jane, she’s the only one he’s interested in. This is also where the girls meet Darcy, Charles’ best friend. At this point Darcy has already managed to put himself in Elizabeth’s bad books when he was an arrogant jerk at her bookstore. Also circling Elizabeth is Collins, the resident church bore, and bad-boy Jack Wickham, both who ask Elizabeth to marry them, for different reasons. Things get complicated when Darcy begins to fall for Elizabeth and Elizabeth’s book catches the eye of a publishing company, which turns out to be Darcy’s.

This was story very loosely based on the original with only the core group of characters. It’s a fun movie, and I think that it falls under the made-for-TV romcom. The type of movie you’d see on some weekend movie marathon on a cable network. It isn’t supposed to be taken seriously. The movie had a lot of goofy moments and pretty much everyone was gently made fun of. And although it’s set in Utah and the characters mention church (and there is a funny scene at church), I didn’t find this religious at all. It just feels like part of the setting.  I think if goofball romcoms are your thing, and you don’t mind something mindless, this is the movie for you, but if you can’t stand that sort of movie, skip this one.

I set up a playlist to watch the movie in it’s entirety

This is #3 for the Everything Austen 2 challenge.

The Family Fortune by Laurie Horowitz

Return to Paradise
Laurie Horowitz

This week has been a week full of free time – I’m waiting around in the jury selection phase of jury duty. I’m not going to go into it, but let’s just say I’ve had HOURS AND HOURS of reading time this week (and it’s not over).

This was a book recommended to me in the comments of my Forgotten Treasure post for Book Blogger Appreciation Week. I had recommended a Jane Austen retelling, Pride, Prejudice, and Jasmine Field and Emily mentioned loving The Family Fortune. I already ordered it from paperbackswap, but I was almost done with the book I had brought to Jury Duty, so I went to the library (conveniently next door to the court house) and picked it up there too.

This is my 2nd review for the Everything Austen II challenge

The Premise: This is a modern day retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, that centers on Jane Fortune, member of an upper-crust Bostonian family that has just realized that it is broke. Jane’s father Teddy, and her sister Miranda flit from party to party, and indulge themselves often. Jane’s married sister Winnie, is an attention-seeking, lazy hypochondriac. And Jane is of course, the sensible one, who spends her time working on her literary journal, The Euphemia Review and giving grants to up-and-coming writers through the Fortune Family Foundation, which she runs. Years ago, Jane met and almost married struggling writer, Max Wellman, the first person to win a grant. Family friend Priscilla and her father intervened and it never happened. Now Jane is a 38-year-old woman who feels spinsterhood beginning to settle around her, while Max is a well-known literary heart-throb, and of course, their paths cross once again.

My Thoughts: This is Persuasion in a high society, high literary setting. There’s always the underlying knowledge of how people should act within Jane’s circles. In this aspect it mirrors Jane Austen in regard to the societal mores of the wealthy very well. The literary journal, The Euphemia Review, and Jane’s friendships with critically acclaimed writers and her “genius for finding genius” feels like another facet in this lifestyle. Like her family name, Jane has some clout in the literary world. This book is told from Jane’s first person point of view, and it’s suggested that The Family Fortune comes from Jane’s journals. Her literary fiction background feels reflected in the language of the book.

When this book first begins, Jane is a creature of steadiness and routine. Jane admits to wearing dark, shapeless clothes and not caring about her appearance. This life is a little drab and depressing, but when she discovers that it’s her old flame may be coming to the area because his sister is renting the Fortune home, a little reevaluation happens, and Jane starts to change for the better. Jane discovers a new literary talent in a writer named Jack Reilly, and becomes a little obsessed with finding him. She begins to pay attention to her appearance. She realizes she does have outside respect for her work with her family’s foundation and her literary work, but she also looks for things to do with her life besides The Euphemia Review.  Much of the focus is on what Jane is doing and what friends and family she sees as she goes about her life, but we are aware as she is, of looking out from the corner of her eye for Max Wellman.

Max appears first when Jane’s father and sister go off to Palm Beach for the winter.  Jane went to visit her sister Winnie, and runs into Max, who is a friend of Winnie’s husband, Charlie. Jane retells their back story and we see her reaction to seeing him again. Of course her feelings are still strong, and she thinks Max is as handsome and charismatic as he ever was, except now everyone else sees him as successful too, while she is the same sensible, reliable Jane. Max is a character I feel like we don’t see much of, even though he is the hero. He appears, and Jane reacts internally and we know she still loves him after all these years, but we have to rely on her side of the romance with little clue about him. What we see of his feelings has to be gleaned through Jane’s description of his expressions. I would have liked to see more from his side of things in this book, particularly in the ending.

There are a lot of secondary characters in this story, but Jane is definitely the main one. Even Max as I said above is like a secondary character. There’s first Jane’s family, and Priscilla, the family friend, then later on we meet characters that represent the Louisa Musgrove, Mrs. Clay, Captain Benwick, and Mr. Elliot characters. These characters mirror the Austen characters very well, at least in spirit. I thought that the modern day representation of Mrs. Clay was well done, and the Mr. Elliot character here took creepily manipulative to new levels (he started benign, but by the end of it he made my, and no doubt Jane’s, skin crawl) . Outside of these characters, there are other secondary characters which (I think) are original to this retelling. Most of these “new” characters are related to Jane’s work with literary fiction.

After I was done, I think I had two problems with the book. I think that these problems are in comparing Jane to Anne Elliot and Max to Captain Wentworth. First Jane. Next to her father and her sisters, Jane is the least self-absorbed, but because the story is told from Jane’s point of view, there are times when she notes things in others that cast her in a mean light. I realize it’s so that the reader can see her family for the people they are, but I don’t recall Anne Elliot in Persuasion as being someone who lists the faults in others. That was reserved for the third person narrator. So when Jane says for example “Miranda’s face was lined with excessive sun exposure. She should know better.” or that someone needed to “take care of the dark roots in an otherwise brassy head of hair”, it only makes her seem secretly as shallow as the rest of her family.  I didn’t like this side of her. She also gets drunk and does something in this story I didn’t think Anne Elliot would do. Max on the other hand was much more of a playboy than I considered Captain Wentworth to be. Maybe I have too high  moral expectations of two of my favorite characters but I thought his character was a little disappointing in this regard. This is something that falls under personal taste.

Overall: I think this is definitely to be recommended for that niche of people who love a good Jane Austen retelling, but are OK with an Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth who are not as pure as the original. I think that I have my particular standards of what my favorite characters should be like and this book doesn’t quite fit them (I found Jane a little unkind sometimes in her descriptions, Max a little too much of a playboy), so in the end I wasn’t completely satisfied. I still want to keep a copy of this book around though. While I had qualms about Jane/Max (YMMV), the upper crust Boston and high literary societies were unique spins on the society found in Persuasion, and the commentary and many details of the original are well reflected here.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
Emily and Her Little Pink Notes – 9/10
Steph Su Reads – 4/5

Becoming Jane

I finally watched Becoming Jane this month as part of the Everything Austen 2 challenge at Stephanie’s Written Word.

This is a fictional biopic of Jane’s life that takes facts from her real life and massages them to make a romantic story. Anne Hathaway plays a young Jane Austen who is interested in writing but hasn’t much use for men until she meets Thomas Lefroy, a young lawyer. They don’t hit it off immediately. In fact Jane dislikes him, but of course his rakish ways somehow charm her and soon they are in full blown love. Unfortunately Tom needs his uncle’s blessing to marry her because he’s dependent on his uncle’s money, and Jane may be a lady, but she’s a poor one.

This was the second time I tried to watch this movie. The first time I tried was last year, and I was so bored after the first ten minutes I switched to something else. This time I made it half an hour before losing interest again. I took a break for a couple of days but made myself keep going for the challenge. The problem was I just did not care about this Jane or about Tom, and the story was just.. uninspiring. Jane spews off quotes directly taken from the real Jane Austen, and it felt like the screenwriter was trying really hard to make Jane seem as witty as she was supposed to be in real life.

The romance annoyed me. First Tom points out how much more worldly he is in comparison to Jane and suggests she is missing out on knowing real love in her novels. It felt kind of like he was using her curiosity to lure her in (and the fact that she IS lured puzzled me since she’s supposed to be smart), and then suddenly, they’re both in love with each other! Did I miss something? It didn’t make much sense.

The best part of the movie may have been the decisions Jane ultimately makes, along with the response of Mr. Wisley (who I liked better than Tom Lefroy), but you have to watch the whole movie to get there. Everything else.. I found myself picking it apart, perhaps unfairly, so I won’t go into it.

In summary – MEH. It was pretty, and it’s about Jane Austen, two positives, but with the exception of one or two scenes, it was bland.

Everything Austen 2

Everything Austen Challenge
Everything Austen Challenge

I didn’t do so well with last year’s Everything Austen Challenge (I somehow forgot it was only 6 months long, so I managed 5 Austen-related books and movies not 6, although I did watch more Austen movies than I had posted about). I am trying again!!

Here are the details: “The Everything Austen Challenge will run for six months (July 1, 2010 – January 1, 2011)! All you need to do is pick out six Austen-themed things you want to finish to complete the challenge. You have until Thursday, July 15th 2010 to officially sign up.” More over at Stephanie’s Written Word

The books/movies I’m thinking about reading/watching:
1. Such a Girl by Karen Siplin (modern day Persuasion)
2. Love, Lies and Lizzie (Jane Austen in the 21st Century) by Rosie Rushton
3. Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict by Laurie Viera Rigler (had this on my list last year but didn’t get to it)
4. Jane Austen in Boca by Paula Marantz Cohen
5. Becoming Jane movie
6. TBD BBC Jane Austen miniseries –  (I’ve watched them all but rewatch them periodically. Of course)

These choices are subject to change

Possible alternatives are books I didn’t get into last year: