Review: Mr. Darcy’s Secret

Mr. Darcy's Secret, Jane OdiweThe newly-married Mrs. Elizabeth Darcy is happy — if a bit nervous — to finally be situated at Pemberley. Managing such a large home is challenging, and Elizabeth is for the help of Mr. Darcy, Georgiana, and new friends in Lambton.

While exploring the library one day, Elizabeth happens upon a secret: anonymous, passionate love letters that may be Mr. Darcy’s.

Elizabeth tries to respect her husband’s privacy — why should his previous romances bother her? —  but the local gossips’ tongues are already wagging.

Can Elizabeth trust her husband, or will Mr. Darcy’s secret be their ruin?

Sweet, sweet, brain candy

I didn’t pick up Mr. Darcy’s Secret expecting Pulitzer prize-winning material. And of course I didn’t get it, but who cares? Summer is the perfect time for light reading, and Jane Odiwe’s book fits the bill (I live in Texas; it’s summer until November).

The best Pride and Prejudice “sequels” are the ones that don’t mess with a good thing. Elizabeth is smart and charming; Georgiana is shy and kind; Darcy’s good but a bit foreboding; and Wickham is a rogue. Odiwe sticks to these archetypes, and the novel is mostly successful.

The mystery isn’t surprising or even that mysterious. Georgiana’s story was more interesting to me. She’s falling in love for the first time, but feels a deep duty to her brother to marry the man he has chosen for her. Seeing her grow throughout the novel was so fun.

I enjoyed Mr. Darcy’s Secret because it felt faithful to Austen’s characters, was funny, a bit scandalous, and had a happy ending. What’s not to love?

What are you reading this summer?

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Review: The Wicked Boy

The Wicked Boy, Kate SummerscaleIt’s July 1895, and brothers Robert and Nattie Coombes are having the perfect summer. With their father away earning a paycheck and their mother visiting relatives in Liverpool, the boys take all their meals at coffee houses, visit the seaside and theatre, and attend local day-long cricket matches.

When their aunt — suspicious that the boys’ mother hasn’t written or returned — forces her way into the home, she discovers something horrifying: the decomposing body of Emily Coombes.

13 year-old Robert confesses to stabbing his mother, and expresses no remorse. The court hears testimony about his debilitating headaches and mood swings, as well as his obsession with “penny dreadfuls” and their glorified violence.

This testimony, plus the lack of any known motive, leads the jury to declare Robert Coombes insane. He becomes one of the youngest ever inmates of Broadmoor, the most infamous criminal lunatic asylum in history.

The Victorian era was the epicenter of titanic shifts in the way society thought about criminality and criminals, education, and the effects of pulp fiction on the human brain. The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer focuses on these shifts — as well as the astonishing life of Robert Coombes.

“The Plaistow Horror”

I am obsessed with this book. I finished it weeks ago, but have been avoiding writing a review because I can’t figure out where to start.

The first few chapters were unsettling. The boys seem like callous freaks. Who murders their mother and then spends a week going out on the town while her body decomposes in an upstairs bedroom?

No one really knew what to believe. Both the defense and the prosecution informed the jury that Robert’s headaches, behavior problems, and collection of gory literature were the result of a twisted brain. His defense team believed he was insane; the prosecution believed he was a monster.

In the end, not even the hanging-happy English society was comfortable with sentencing a 13 year-old to death. Robert was declared insane, a danger to those around him, and sent to Broadmoor.

At Broadmoor and beyond

Fortunately for Robert, Broadmoor was a different kind of asylum. There were no straitjackets, no horrifying “therapies.” Just routine, a quiet country setting, and capable staff.

Robert went on to become a champion chess player, worked in the onsite tailor’s shop, and was a member of Broadmoor’s brass band.

17 years after he was committed, Robert was discharged. He traveled to Australia, joined the military at the beginning of World War I, and became a fucking war hero.

In 1930, Robert took saved his neighbor’s son Harry from an abusive stepfather, and essentially raised him as his own. He died in 1949, and is buried in Australia.

Mind. Blown.

So what happened? How did a 13 year-old who stabbed and bludgeoned his mother to death go on to live a normal — even heroic — life?

Author Kate Summerscale believes that Robert suffered a psychotic break brought on by his mother’s abuse. Emily Coombes frequently threatened both boys, and beat Nattie early on the day of her murder.

Robert’s headaches and mood swings were, Summerscale believes, the symptoms of living in the shadow of abuse. At some point Robert came to believe that the only way he could protect himself and his brother was to escape their mother. When running away didn’t work, his anxious mind supplied an alternative. Only when Emily Coombes was gone did Robert believe he would be safe.

I can’t imagine what this would do to a kid. Becoming fully aware that you had killed your mother, that you were likely going to spend the rest of your life in an asylum.

Is that what made Robert so anxious to join the military, to be a stretcher-bearer responsible for saving lives on the battlefield? Is that what made him take responsibility for a kid he barely knew, but who he could see was being abused by his parent?

We know so little about Robert’s thoughts in his lifetime. If he kept a diary, it’s long gone. We can only look at his actions. The press considered him a monster — no matter how abusive Emily had been, she didn’t deserve to be murdered — but in the end Robert’s actions throughout his life proved his rationality, kindness, and bravery.

Read this right now

Get a copy of Summerscale’s book right now. The Wicked Boy is well-researched, fascinating, and will absolutely suck you in.

I’ve read it twice now, but will definitely be picking it up again very soon. One of my favorite reads of 2016.

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Writing Prompt #9: Handle with Care

Writing Prompt(This month’s writing prompt is Handle with Care: Write about a very fragile or delicate object.)

I went with haiku because I’m a masochist.

Heart

When you hold my hand,
You hold my heart in your grasp.
Please don’t squeeze too hard.

Rose

My cheeks are your rose.
I save my best colors for you.
Lean in and kiss me.

Egg

So small and fragile.
Yet contained within is the
Secret to the world.

Peace

Put down your weapons.
We don’t have room for them here.
Let’s hold hands instead.

Bones

The crack, the splinter.
Red and white exposed to air.
Only time can mend.

Silence

A pressing stillness.
Feeling the heartbeat, the breath.
Breathe deeply with me.

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Review: Dear Abigail

Dear Abigail, Diane JacobsJohn and Abigail’s letters to each other are famous; less known are the letters between Abigail and her sisters, Mary and Elizabeth. They were separated by geography, family life, and in some cases ideology, but throughout their lifetimes relied on each other for knowledge, comfort, and humor.

In Dear Abigail: The Intimate Lives and Revolutionary Ideas of Abigail Adams and her Two Remarkable Sisters, author Diane Jacobs presents these letters as well as the Revolutionary times in which they were written.

The Smith sisters’ letters are remarkable not only because they give us a peek into America’s very beginnings as a nation, but also because they introduce us to three women who were themselves revolutionaries.

Oh so very good

I read and enjoyed The Letters of John and Abigail Adams in 2011, but it never occurred to me that of course Abigail wrote letters to other people. Reading Dear Abigail has been one of the most enjoyable and interesting experiences of my summer.

Most of the books written about the American Revolution focus on the lives of the men who led it, and who struggled to keep the newly-fledged nation alive. It’s interesting to read a book featuring women who were just as smart and opinionated as men, and were incredibly frustrated by the limitations of being merely females.

Abigail is the most famous (as is her exhortation to John to “remember the ladies”), but her sisters were just as determined to make their own marks on the world. Oldest sister Mary became a well-respected, if unofficial, town leader; youngest sister Elizabeth founded the second co-educational school in the country. This on top of dealing with sick or abusive spouses, raising children, and keeping their own farms productive.

I loved reading about how these women viewed the war, politics and politicians, and were excited and worried for their new country’s future. Abigail in particular was always at her husband’s shoulder, advocating for the rights that would give future female generations the ability to participate in politics on (kinda sorta) the same footing as men. The sisters believed women deserved the same educational opportunities as men, and deserved the same right to decide the future of their country. They didn’t want the women of the future to have to rely so entirely on their fathers and husbands in order to survive and thrive.

While this book looks at the lives of all three sisters, it is Abigail on whom Jacobs’ writings focus most. As a Puritan wife, she believed that she must be subservient to her husband. But as a political force of her own (and eventual First Lady), she wanted to express her own beliefs about equality. Her personal and political beliefs around what being a good woman and a good wife meant changed throughout her life — her letters reflect these changes.

It was comforting to see that even as dedicated an American as Abigail Adams could at times doubt her leaders, her country, and even herself.

All three women were admirable, capable, strong human beings. They deserve acknowledgement for the way they captured history in their letters to each other, and for setting the stage for future generations of women to succeed on their own merits.

I recommend Dear Abigail to anyone — particularly women and girls — who wants to learn more about how women helped shape the United States from the very beginning.

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Review: Gunn’s Golden Rules

Gunn's Golden Rules, Tim GunnTim Gunn is best known for his work on Project Runway, where his “Make it work” anthem rings repeatedly in the ears of designers and viewers alike. It’s been Gunn’s mantra for at least a decade, so of course it had to be the title of his book.

Gunn’s Golden Rules: Life’s Little Lessons for Making it Work is something of a modern manners book — with a dash of memoir and a heaping spoonful of gossipy stories. By following the rules he sets out, Gunn believes that anyone can make their own lives better.

This, I liked

I’m a sucker for good manners. I believe that the little things — holding open doors, saying “please” and “thank you,” and knowing your soup spoon from your teaspoon — are what separate us from lower life forms, and are the only things that can save humanity from total ruin.

Upon hearing the word “manners,” a lot of people roll their eyes or start freaking out about which side of the plate their napkin should go on. There’s a lot of outdated manners advice out there; people either try to follow some of it and lose their minds, or ignore it completely and behave rudely.

And that’s one of my favorite things about Gunn’s book. He distills all advice down to a single thought: “Manners are simply about asking yourself, What’s the right thing to do?”

This is glorious advice, because doing what’s right generally matches up nicely with having good manners. It’s someone’s birthday? The right (and nice) thing to do is send a card. See someone trying to dash through the rain? The right (and nice) thing is to offer to share your umbrella.

Gunn goes into much more detail, of course. He shares 18 rules, everything from “The world owes you nothing” to “Be a good guest or stay home” and “Take risks!”. I agree with all of them, and hope I can remember them going forward (hello there, “Use technology; don’t let it use you”!).

That, not so much

Gunn illustrates each of his rules by telling stories of the true, ridiculous things he has seen in show business and academia.

While I like that idea, I think his execution was flawed. Most of the stories feel less, “Here’s a valuable illustration of this rule” and more like, “Here’s this story that makes so-and-so look bad, and probably feel bad, too.” This is completely counter to the premise of the book: how to make life better for yourself and others.

I don’t think this was Gunn’s intention — he’s never outright mean or snarky — but for me it detracted from the book’s merits.

Same with the stories he tells about his mother (and to some extent, his father). He uses her behavior to illustrate how not to behave, and goes into detail many times about how frustrating and challenging their relationship is. Is airing your dirty laundry and clearly unresolved feelings about how you were raised “the right thing to do”? I’d say no, but that’s just me.

Take the good, leave the bad

There’s a reason I don’t read things authored by people who make any part of their living on reality television: it’s always feels just a little bit seedy.

I didn’t enjoy the alternatively gossipy and preachy feel, but overall I enjoyed Gunn’s Golden Rules. If nothing else, it was an excuse to read and talk about manners — something we can never have too much of.

(I read this book as part of the Monthly Motif Challenge. August’s challenge was to read a book from a genre that you don’t normally read from.)

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