RevWar Espionage: Nobody Does It Better

RevWar reading: an early favorite

RevWar reading: an early favorite

America’s “first” spies seem to be all over the place these days. Spy thrillers in general are ever-popular  — how many times have you read recently that The Americans is “the best show on television“? But I keep crossing paths with fresh storytelling around America’s much earlier spymasters and secret agents.  Revolutionary War tales have always captivated me, and been a mainstay of my decades as a romance and historical fiction reader. Now there are swashbuckling RevWar tales coming to life on screens and in new genres and media, from television to graphic novels to interactive living history experiences.

I don’t know how to measure whether these productions represent a significant trend toward renewed mainstream interest in 18th century American history, or part of a larger trend towards historical drama (the TV series in particular) but I do know I am enjoying the chance to see heroes in tricornes and mobcaps match wits and swords with villains who don’t always reveal themselves merely in the color of their red coats.  Here’s my list of new RevWar spy stories, probably incomplete (I’m pretty sure there must be RevWar fans who are gamers, hence games, but that’s foreign territory for me), with just a few brief impressions.

AMC’s Turn  This high profile series from AMC follows in the footsteps of HBO’s John Adams, but takes real history in a more traditional direction for television — towards twisty plotlines, sexy intrigue, constant threats of danger, and violence.  It’s coming back for Season 2 in about a month (April 2015). I admit I probably had overly high expectations for this show, given the sheer numbers of romantic and heroic novels set in this period that I’ve read. I’m a fan, but largely because of the setting, the attention to details of social history and everyday life in British-occupied North America, and quality of the production, rather than any sense of emotional connection to the characters. My connection to the story feels as if it’s happening via the evocation of history I already know and care about, rather than happening through my experience of these individuals and their particular stories.

The bad guys seem more interesting, in spite of Simcoe's sociopathic behavior, than the good guys...

The bad guys seem more interesting, in spite of Simcoe’s sociopathic behavior, than the good guys…

It’s an ensemble cast, and I have some favorites – dueling spymasters Ben Tallmadge (Seth Numrich) and John Andre (JJ Felid) are a delicious contrast – but the two principal leads, Abe Woodhull (Jamie Bell) and Anna Strong (Heather Lind) just don’t make a strong enough impression, and as they occupy the center of the plot, it all somehow just feels too flat. I keep wanting to like Abe more, or care more about him as an unsual/unlikely Everyman kind of conflicted hero, but … it’s not happening. Anna is the more ballsy hero here, with nothing left to lose, but again, it’s not powerful enough. The center doesn’t hold. Fortunately, there are enough charismatic secondary characters, especially those fighting for the “wrong” side (not in the pic, but well worth mentioning is Angus MacFadyen’s Robert Rogers), and connections to historic events and places that I find compelling, for me to keep watching.

Sleepy Hollow OK, this show with its OTT apocalyptic horror elements is not a true spy drama, but it’s supernatural time travel mystery is embedded in RevWar history and myth, and spins a hilariously fun yarn that links Washington’s inner circle of strategists and spies to saving mankind from satanic forces of evil and the Four Horsemen. It’s the opposite of Turn in that it’s got a charismatic relationship at its center that kept me watching even after I tired of the surrounding elements, which in this case involve a lot of crazy antics with zombies, witches, sin-eaters, and curses.

tom-mison-1024_zps327669edMore of a badass than he appears on the surface, Tom Mison’s Ichabod Crane is the embodiment of an 18th century scholar soldier, an eminently watchable hero in the Dunnett mold (though I suppose I am stopping short of a full-blown Lymond comparison here, because the supernatural elements of this show are too silly for me). As brass tacks foil for Crane’s hilarious encounters with 21st century customs and technology, Nicole Beharie’s Abbie Mills strikes just the right balance between eye rolling and empathy. Cryptography and code breaking are important tools for driving the storyline, so I’m counting Sleepy Hollow in my collection of RevWar spy storytelling.  While we’re talking about television, I haven’t yet seen History Channel’s Sons of Liberty, but it may end up here on the list too, if there’s enough spying going on.

RevQuest @ Colonial Williamsburg I’m the kind of parent whose children are likely to complain that every family vacation was interrupted by detours and pit stops at every national historic site or house museum that could be crammed in to the itinerary. So we’ve been to a LOT of these places, including the biggest and most well regarded of the big living history attractions (for those interested in early American history) like Plimoth Plantation and Old Sturbridge Village. And I’ve probably adopted the Massachusetts habit of dissing places like “Tory” Virginia when it comes to comparing bragging rights about Revolutionary sites and significance. So I wasn’t expecting to be as wowed by Colonial Williamsburg as I was when I took the tweens there last April. A huge element of the wow factor was their tremendously fun and elaborate interactive real-time spy game —  RevQuest.

d140aac835f780c3ff1abeed3b0f7e0dScavenger hunts for kids are ubiquitous at educational and historic museums these days, but RevQuest takes that kind of experience to a whole new level. You get props, you must pick up and decode secret messages, you have to notice and approach other members of the “resistance,” and you send messages to your handler via secret system (there are segments of the quest that test your codebreaking skill via text messaging). It’s challenging and fun enough for older kids — we saw lots of teens and young adults on the sprawling quest that takes the better part of a day to complete (participants wear a bright scarf you’re issued when you sign up) — and families can play along together (there’s also a more traditional scavenger hunt map for younger kids). It’s a fantastic lens through which to experience a day in the revolutionary city, and each year the quest is re-framed with a new storyline and set of clues. Last year’s “The Old Enemy” placed participants in the role of senior agent responsible for brokering the alliance with France, to obtain much-needed stores of gunpowder. My daughters were captivated by the experience, and the piece that really made it work was learning some spycraft along with real history about the American situation and strategy during the early days of the war against Britain. I can’t tell you how great it was to see my reserved, somewhat shy daughters, emboldened to approach and interact with the interpreters playing the roles of fellow secret patriots.

5137bd1ed9ecf.preview-620Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales Another YA-related phenomenon, this series of graphic novels was launched in 2012 with the story of American hero spy, Nathan Hale. In truth, only the first book, One Dead Spy, and the cleverly arch conceit that frames the series, has anything to do with RevWar spies, but we think these books are so much fun, I had to include them. And get this, the extremely gifted author/illustrator is actually named NATHAN HALE. For reals!

Donner Dinner Party and Big Bad Ironclad are also, rather unbelievably given the subject matter, very witty.  Each tale is a meticulously researched and illustrated volume that delivers an unusual blend of black humor, middle school age-appropriate gross-out japery, and serious historical storytelling that explores and explicates the how and why of some very hazardous (and dark) episodes in US history. The girls and I are eagerly anticipating Hale’s newest tale – forthcoming in April – The Underground Abductor — a tale about Harriet Tubman and her perilous journeys on the Underground Railroad.

Mistress_FirebrandBaloghRenegades of the Revolution I’m going to wrap this post up with a teaser — I have recently finished reading Donna Thorland’s Mistress Firebrand, the third volume in the Renegades series of swashbuckling romances grounded in authentically tumultuous Revolutionary America. Thorland’s dark and dangerous spy romances (The Turncoat, and The Rebel Pirate) weave a complex and glittering web of honor, deceit, loyalty, treachery, violence and courage around her beautifully imagined characters. For me, Joanna Bourne sets the bar pretty high when it comes to historical spy romance, but Thorland delivers, and I’m looking forward to sharing more of my response to the seemingly impossible romance between reckless rebel playwright Jennifer Leighton and ruthless Crown agent Severin Devere in a forthcoming post.

(Full disclosure: Donna is a twitter acquaintance, and was kind enough to send me an ARC of Mistress Firebrand. In accordance with my policy, I’m not under obligation to review, and if I do write about the book, it will be my honest opinion.)

So what do you think? If you’re a reader of American history and historical fiction, do you notice a resurgence of multi-media re-tellings of our Revolutionary history, with an emphasis on the clandestine goings on? Are there aspects of the collective past that are being reframed and/or repackaged, and to what end(s)?

Of Michener and McCullough: A Brief Remembrance, with Links

download (1)In 1977 when The Thorn Birds was published I was fresh off a junior-high year of obsessively re-reading Jane Eyre and addictively consuming hundreds of Barbara Cartland category romances for my 7th grade reading log (fortunately, I had some understanding of the quality/quantity distinction, which is probably why my English teacher let me inflate my numbers so cravenly as long as there was a diversity of other literary selections mixed in with the formulaic Cartlands). I was also sneakily reading Harold Robbins paperbacks and other similarly torrid material I found stashed in the guest room. And I’d discovered James Michener and the lengthy escapism of the place-based epic historical novel/family saga. I still have an incredibly dog-eared copy of Centennial with heavily doodled inside covers – I was practicing signing my name in different handwritings, and designing monograms. I loved that book.

But I think Colleen McCullough’s sweeping Australian saga of the sheep-ranching Clearys and tormented fallen angel Father Ralph de Bricassart was probably the first mega bestseller and cultural phenomenon in which I was old enough to participate as a reader while it was happening – buying a copy while it was on the bestseller lists, re-reading it several times while waiting for the TV miniseries. So I had a moment of intense nostalgia when I heard news of Colleen McCullough’s death, on the radio during my morning commute one day last week. With commute time nearly doubled due to the heavy snow congestion on all the roads here in metro Boston, I had plenty of time to try and remember details about Drogheda and the impossible, illicit romance of heiress Meggie and vow-breaking Father Ralph.

It’s not a book I’ve thought about continuously over the years, and I haven’t re-read it since high school. Still, as Sarah MacLean pointed out in her USA Today tribute to McCullough, The Thorn Birds is “one of those books” — fiction readers of a certain age all know it and have a response to it, and for many romance readers it probably was a formative literary experience in centering so fully and unapologetically on a doomed, star-crossed romance.

Screen_Shot_2015-0_3182522cTo be truthful, I probably wouldn’t have felt moved to do a post about this book, except as it comes up tangentially when people talk about romance novels with clergy heroes.  Sitting in traffic listening to the NPR obituary  I had a random thought about how it would be nice to chat with other romanceland twitterfolk about McCullough’s passing, and the influence of The Thorn Birds. But then I got to work and forgot about it, until the next time I was on twitter and saw the uproar over her obituary. I mean the misogyny and sexism embedded therein was so egregious the retweets were crossing all my tweet streams, even my “serious” work twitter where I mainly follow economics eggheads and policy wonks far from the world of book talk and literary criticism.

So this has all been stewing for me, and I thought about how vividly I can remember reading The Thorn Birds as an utterly immersive experience. But I read Michener the same way, at the time. And can you even for one minute imagine a similarly offensive framing of his life’s work?? Actually, people all over started to do just this kind of thing, with some hilarious results. Just google #MyOzObituary. Even when pointing out Michener’s populist rather than literary pedigree in the hierachy of publishing, The Economist’s obit leads with an admiring: “Spurned by many but read by millions.”

Then today I read this good essay by Danielle Binks  (via @RomanceProf) that explores the various facets of literary sexism that are exposed (again..) by this latest episode, with particular focus on persistent denigration and snobbery around the most-read genres, which happen to also be the most female-oriented genres, of romance and “women’s fiction.” This is a marvelous synthesis, and contains an thoughtful articulation of the relationship between broad cultural sexism and particular forms of literary elitism, especially the ambivalent position of the romance genre in the literary establishment.  Binks also pulled together many good links and many wonderful quotes from around romanceland, offering contextualization of anti-romance literary snobbery within broader considerations of sexism, and outlining a history of centuries-old disdain for “silly novels by lady novelists.” Against all this, there is the empowering narrative of women’s shared experiences of reading, expressed by Sarah Wendell, among others, and quoted by Binks as well:

Sarah Wendell asked a similar question of her followers – if The Thorn Birds was a gateway romance book for them – and the response was overwhelming; ‘For many, many readers, it was the book that introduced them to the genre. For some, it was a book given to them by their mothers or aunts, and for others, it was the book their moms hid from them so they wouldn’t read it (which of course they did anyway)! When I asked on Twitter, many women told me that they remember clearly seeing their moms reading the book, and that the miniseries was an event.’ (Danielle Binks, “When will we write an obituary for literary sexism?” Daily Life, 2/2/2015)

I haven’t got any larger deeper insights here. I might quibble about the fact that while the novel does tell the story of a powerful romance, the lack of a happy ending among other things sets it outside the bounds of conventional genre romance, and it reads more like a Michener than a Woodiwiss, at least in my recollection.

But I do share this feeling of connection as a Thorn Birds fan of a certain age. I’m thinking there may be similarly powerful nostalgia around other memorable book-to-screen “events” from the 70s, from Garp to Scruples.  OK, maybe not Scruples. (I liked Princess Daisy much better.)

Today I’m just taking a few more words than I can fit into a 140-character tweet, to offer my small personal contribution to the powerful tradition of reading and remembrance that is finding expression this week in talking about Colleen McCullough, her life, her books, and her impact on a generation of readers. I’m grateful for her literary legacy, and I’m glad to share in celebrating it with many other lifelong readers.

 

An Unexpected and Very Badass Romance Is Why I Kept Watching AMC’s The Killing

tk-s3-gallery-linden-holder-760-21Let me confess up front that one of the principal reasons I haven’t been blogging much is that I haven’t been reading as much as usual this winter. And this is primarily a book blog, right? There’s still a part of me that feels guilty about watching television instead of reading. But the availability of streaming television series, whole seasons and even whole series available for the bingeing, is changing how I consume media, as it is for so many people. I used to occasionally binge on a whole season of something good, back in the days of waiting for the DVD release. These days, hardly a week goes by without a streaming binge of one show or another, from OITNB to GoT to Boardwalk Empire.  I’ve become obsessed with new content from new producers – Sundance (Rectify, An Honourable Woman, The Red Road), Amazon (Transparent, Mozart in the Jungle), Netflix (House of Cards, of course). Downton, Sons of Anarchy, The Good Wife and The Americans are among the few remaining shows in which I didn’t or can’t overindulge.  Oh, and Mad Men, which is maddeningly STILL not back to wrap up its serialized Great Expectations tale of Don Draper.

The thing is, being able to keep watching numerous episodes in one evening, bingeing on a serial television program is starting to feel more and more like my old reading habits, staying up into the wee hours consuming chapter after chapter of an engrossing novel.  Of course tv and books are not the same, and neither is watching vs. reading, but there’s something about some of the most compulsively watchable series that feels a little bit like reading an intricately plotted, un-putdownable novel.

10860051_375675945890414_535456110_aAnd this is how it was for me with watching AMC’s The Killing. At first it was just beautiful and moody and arrestingly sad. Then it bogged down with its own pretension, and some ridiculous plot points, but the relationships, the characters and the actors, and the gloomy vision of a rain-soaked Seattle kept me hooked.

The other key ingredient was following episode by episode commentary from Vulture’s Starlee Kine. Her recaps full of pissed off commentary (about gaping plot holes, leaps of logic, cops being terrible at their jobs, implausible medical miracles and lack of appropriate law enforcement technology) resonated and deepened my attachment to the show. The show did garner a lot of critical attention, both positive and negative, for some of its risky and/or groundbreaking elements. But it seems I am not the only one to fall under the spell of the relationship at the center of The Killing, so much so that you’re willing to put up with all kinds of nonsense, just to keep watching this pair of damaged souls find their way. Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman) and Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) kept me mesmerized.

SPOILERS BELOW ….. (but here’s a spoiler-free review of Season 4 by Jeffrey Bloomer for Slate) 

And at the end of the final season…. a Happy Ending!  As in a real live, romantically-together-at-the-end-of-the-story, HEA, or at least an HFN, for the series’ two protagonists. It turns out Holder and Linden really were the main couple in a four-season-long, made-for-cable-and-netflix, contemporary romantic suspense thriller. This was one of the most emotionally satisfying television finales since the brilliant end of Six Feet Under.  But it felt very different, because of its close focus on just the two main characters, rather than showing us a montage of all the characters and their various fates.  It felt like the end of a very long, very suspenseful, almost-DNF’d-when-it seemed-to-go-off-the-rails, romance novel.

Here’s how four seasons of a moody, pretentious crime drama (based on the Danish drama Forbrydelsen, or The Crime) ended up feeling like a romance novel, in a good way (and I find I don’t care about the tv noir fans who decried the happy ending as “too American” or too cheesy):

2f02f3be-d214-b142-d53d-ed227fa777b7_TK_307_CS_0429_0186.jpgTortured Hero Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman), silver-tongued smoldering Swedish 12-stepper. He had a rough childhood, made his way onto the police force as an undercover narcotics officer, got addicted to methamphetamine, got sober, got promoted to Homicide, and has the most amazing soliloquies that are themselves an addicting blend of American street slang, laconic delivery, 12-step taglines, irony, self-deprecating humor, psychological insight, and Kinnaman’s nascent Swedish accent slipping in from time to time. It’s not that he’s always got his shit together, but he manages to rise above even his own most horrible behavior, to own his bad acts, make reparation, and see through his own posing. When he’s crushed by grief and guilt and doubt (there are some really bad and tragic things that happen to people in this show), he somehow even seems to embrace these as necessary steps on the path. His most vulnerable moments are heartbreakingly simple: when he’s forced to let down his nephew on the boy’s birthday in order to support Linden in a terrible circumstance; when he visits the grave of a murdered teen runaway he had tried to help, used as a confidential informant, and ultimately failed to protect.

downloadEven more Tortured Heroine Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos), enigmatic single mom; a supposedly brilliant detective whose empathy for victims pushes her to extreme lengths to catch killers even as she neglects her own tween son so much she almost loses him. A hard-knock child of the foster care system herself, she is a mass of denial and self-delusion/self-confusion about what she really wants, where she really belongs. For the entire first season she’s supposed to be leaving Seattle to move to sunny California and get married, but you can tell from the outset that she’s never really going to go that easy route, and that the guy who’s her intended mate is All Wrong For Her. But it’s done with such intensity and misdirection in terms of the writing that it actually feels stunning when it’s finally revealed that he was her psychiatrist during her most recent lockup — she has a history of compulsive obsession with a closed case she’s convinced put the wrong guy in jail, and it’s wreaked havoc with her mental health.

10808688_1406921106271566_586127293_nMeet cute  Still, she’s a star homicide detective, so even though it’s her last day on the job, she gets assigned to mentor the new kid just promoted from Narcotics when they land a high-profile case of a murdered teen who may have been killed by one of half a dozen of Seattle’s leading citizens. The scenes where she’s trying to clear out her desk and leave while he’s trying to chat her up are fantastic. She gives him NOTHING, she’s so convinced she can walk away from the case and all she wants to do is get on that plane to California. Their boss does keep pressuring her to stay for this case because he doesn’t know/trust Holder yet. She insists she will give him only one day, then one more day. But somehow she just keeps missing the damn flight…. And Holder can tell she’s not going anywhere. His self-awareness gives him the compassion and capacity to “get” her before she can begin to get herself. There are numerous times when, in spite of his youth and charisma and hoodies, and her horrible mom sweaters and measured pace, he shows himself to be the more emotionally mature one. Meanwhile, she’s busy writing him off as a recovered-tweaker hipster who happens to have mad getting-street-people-and-teens-to-share-information-and-secrets skills. Their conversations are the best part of the show, and the episodes devoted to watching them ride around talking and smoking were some of my favorite hours of storytelling in a long time.

10729214_773357939410073_326592516_nRescuing each other, literally and emotionally It’s a darkly intense crime drama, so there are a lot of other things going on, from the raw pain of the victim’s grieving parents and siblings to corrupt politicians, snarky campaign operatives, and enough creepy possible suspects from all walks of life to fill at least a dozen different Law & Order cases. And like all noir-ish detective shows, the plot places the protagonists in grave personal peril – there is one beautifully produced sequence involving a kidnapped Linden secretly keeping her radio on and talking to her abductor for hours, using clues and codes that only Holder will comprehend, so that after a whole incredibly intense episode he is finally able to locate her and bring in the rescue operation.  Of course this kind of thing is a metaphor for the ways in which they can rescue each other emotionally, if they are willing to be honest with one another.

A Happy Ending It’s not a surprise that Holder is the first to recognize and acknowledge their deep connection. The challenge, both for the characters and for the viewer, is having the patience and trust to wait for Linden to get there. The final episode delivers with a classic romance novel trope — the last-minute capitulation. It’s a year since they have survived their final horrific case, which includes some very bad business for which both of them have risked prosecution. Linden’s been drifting around the country, visiting her son who she’s finally placed in the more stable environment of his father’s (out-of-state) home. Holder’s been recovering his equilibrium and grounding himself further as a Narcotics Anonymous staff leader. She “stops by” to see him. They talk about how much they mean to each other. But she can’t see herself putting down roots anywhere. They embrace and he lets her go, but not without ratcheting up the sexual tension a couple dozen notches. Still, she walks away. And he loves her enough to know she can’t be chased. All seems dire. But then it’s several hours later and she’s there on the sidewalk waiting for him at the end of the day. And she’s finally all in. And that’s the end of the show – just some quick shots of their joyful faces, and not even a cliche’ clinch. (Not onscreen anyway – show creator and director Veena Sud has said that Enos and Kinnaman did in fact kiss during the final take, but the camera had moved on so it wasn’t captured.)

tumblr_n9omjwbxeJ1ql3i4oo3_250The heroine’s journey It was reading this Veena Sud interview that really affirmed the connection for me between the story of Linden and Holder, and the romance genre. While Holder was the more charismatic character, making it easy to focus on the ways Kinnaman made him really leap off the screen, the overarching narrative is Linden’s journey. Which connects The Killing to one of the ways the romance genre is often read, as a narrative formula that comprises the heroine’s journey from a state of incompletion and lack of self-knowledge, to wholeness, integration, and her emotionally proper place in the world.  Linden finally tells Holder that she’s found her home, and it’s not a place, it’s him. Sud references this directly when she’s asked about a possible fifth season for the duo:

We brought her to the end of her journey. She found the thing that she was looking for all along. It’s the end of the story.

As is right and proper for a satisfying romance. It was such a treat for the show to end this way. Somehow they managed to pull off the happy ending in a way that feels believable, yet unexpected. I did stick with this drama even when I knew I was watching a show that was going off the rails in many ways, because of the chemistry and emotion between these two.  It was often so bleak and damp and dark I certainly did not expect an HEA out of the experience. I don’t know if this is because I wasn’t paying close enough attention, or because Sud and her team just decided very late in the game to give fans the satisfaction.  But I for one thoroughly enjoyed the emotional payoff – and I think people like me who hung in with this show deserved it.

ee866e46c16c6dbae2dd20f768dad275I’m casting around trying to think of other shows where the two leads end up together when the show ends…. Maybe Moonlighting? I honestly can’t remember how that finally ended. How about the fun US Marshal drama, In Plain Sight – nope, that one ended disappointingly for some fans, with Mary and Marshall agreeing she was better as his work wife than she could possibly ever be as his real spouse/lover.

How many other tv shows are there where the ending has the look and feel of a romance novel HEA for the two main protagonists?

 

Gritty in Glasgow: Carrie Lofty’s Starlight, Matters of Class, and Historical Romance

It’s hard to review, write about or even read, really, a historical without feeling the weight of all the heavy “what’s wrong with historical romancediscussions of the past several years. (Discussions that are both very valuable, I think, and very frustrating.) I find myself wanting to just think about this book in isolation, as a recent reading experience. Well, good luck with that… it’s the first traditional HistRom I’ve read in months, and, for better or worse, it’s arrived here at the blog with some baggage.

I first became aware of Carrie Lofty during RT14 in a discussion of “Gritty Historicals”  which also featured Courtney Milan, Zoe Archer, and Lorelei Brown. I wrote a bit about this panel, and the dearth of historical romance hoopla at the convention overall, shortly after returning from New Orleans. I must say that while I was very pleased to receive a signed copy of STARLIGHT just for being in the audience, I kept looking at the cover and feeling stymied. Gritty? Really? I can think of a lot of other adjectives that better describe the mood this cover evokes. If I had to pick just one, I’d go with “dreamy” (not dreamy as in a dreamy movie idol but dreamy as in twinkle, twinkle late at night, come hither bedroom eyes, backless boudoir wear, cool moonlit color palette and floral satin bedding strewn about).

downloadBut interestingly it was Lofty who made the excellent point about the disconnect between the publishing assumption that HistRom readers rely on the ballgown cover as the signifier for “historical romance,” and the issue of discoverability — that there are historicals which do indeed go “beyond the ballroom” into tough, gritty settings and/or themes, but they are often hard to identify if one relies on the marketing imagery. In this case it’s hard to imagine a book with a greater disconnect between content and cover. I know, cover disconnects are so commonplace it’s dull to even mention it, but I still really. Don’t. Get. This. One. At. All. Unless it’s some kind of working-girl-made-good fantasy…. but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Since I do still harbor a soft spot for Scottish-set historicals (especially if there is NO time travel involved, and NO heavy-handed kilt ogling), I decided to give Starlight‘s Victorian Glasgow a go. The opportunity to discover a new-to-me author with a nice backlist is always appealing, and now I wonder how I missed Lofty prior to the RT panel. This book certainly delivers on the grainy history, and a believably smoldering attraction and romance. There were distractions that prevented a wholly immersive reading experience, but I think these are as much about my HistRom baggage as about Lofty’s well-crafted romance. That is, although this was not sheer perfection for me, I admire the effort to tackle many of HistRom’s problems head-on, and the romantic energy and sexual tension of the central relationship worked.

The setting Glasgow, Scotland in the days of the Industrial Revolution — the book is permeated with Victorian-era urban squalor, class conflict, union-busting, corruption and capitalism. No dukes, no debutantes. Tenements, row houses, back alleys, pubs, and mills – no ballrooms, not even a lowly assembly room.

The master Alex Christie, widowed astronomy professor and reluctant mill owner. He’s thoughtful and fair, but doesn’t back down from a fight; an interesting mix of intellect, sentiment, and street tough. He didn’t expect to inherit the mill, and is forced to fight for its survival, and to retain custody of his infant son, due to the ill will and evil machinations of his dead wife’s abusive father.

The organizer Polly Gowan, mill worker, skilled orator, union leader,  and vigorous advocate for justice. I’m trying very hard to not use the word “feisty.” She’s unusually progressive (unmarried, but not a virgin), a dutiful daughter and respectful, caring leader within her community. She is politically savvy enough to be OK with being elected to lead the union while letting the mill owners and outside world think she is merely a stand-in for her ailing father, the longtime union boss.

The tropes Opponents to Lovers (Mill girl and Factory owner);Terms of Dictatorial Will set up hero’s Mission to Save Estate (must make mill profitable or lose it all); Fate of an Innocent Child at Stake; Pub Brawl requires Hero and Heroine to Fight Thugs Together; Heroine is Unusually Clever and has been raised by Wise Father who Recognizes Her Potential to take over His Life’s Work (leadership of the union).

The Weight of History?   It felt thoroughly fresh to read a period-piece Victorian-set romance about middle class and working class people that doesn’t rely on an upstairs/downstairs contrast with the ornate luxury of the haute bourgeoisie and aristocracy. I found myself rooting for Starlight as an effort to reframe historical romance in terms of ordinary people, ordinary lives, and ordinary jobs.

Both Alex and Polly come across as likable and deserving of each other, and I found their romance emotionally satisfying. They’ve got a lot of physical chemistry and Lofty got good mileage from casting Alex as a strong-shouldered Scotsman who reminded Polly more of the men in her family than of a professor or pampered factory owner. Her plotting and character development also managed to avoid wallowing in childhood trauma/redemption backstories or psychobabble, for which I’m grateful. This narrative choice in particular sets Starlight apart from what Dear Author reviewer Sunita and others have dubbed the “ahistorical historical.”  The class conflicts, financial straits, and labor relations issues that must be resolved in order for the romance to prevail are appropriate to the historical setting and organic to the circumstances. These obstacles make sense in the period setting, grounding the narrative rather than transplanting a modern thicket of angst-y pasts and/or inner demons.

While there were times when the mill setting, along with the chemistry embodied by this couple, caused dreamy North and South film-inspired imagery to mingle here with the particulars of Lofty’s tale, I kept having stray thoughts about the tension between the emotional aspects of the story and the socio-economic circumstances. Would these rank and file union men really defer to Polly’s authority? Even with the cover story that she was representing her ailing father, I felt skeptical about the union election where Lofty set up Polly’s male opponent as a flawed choice, rather than a serious, and in all likelihood successful, challenger.

What about Alex’s class status and worldview? He’s meant to represent the educated upper middle class of owners and investors, but he’s at home in a pub brawl or a bruising soccer match with the workers. And it turns out he eludes an easy label because he’s only a generation removed from the tenements of Calton, as he often reminds Polly. Do I really believe in the upward mobility and fluid identity this character embodies? Or is this “misleading whitewash” about the bitter history of classism in Britain, as Polly Toynbee, writing for the Guardian, recently asked in the context of much-adored Downton Abbey?

Actually, some of Alex’s traits seem deliberately deployed by Lofty in order to give him an ability to blur the line of class distinction between him and Polly. Here, when they’re sharing a bed, she asks him not to shave because she likes how he feels:

He sat up. “I’ll look like just another Scotsman if I keep the stubble. Seems like my father passed on a touch of ginger I hadn’t known was there”   …

“But I like Scotsmen. They look burly and strong, like I’d be protected forever.” She pressed her lips down along his nape. “Isn’t that what you’ve offered me, Alex? What you’ve promised my da?” (p.325)

What’s also interesting is that in spite of her personal ambition, independence, and level of autonomy, it’s clear that Polly not only honors tradition and family in considering the protection of marriage and a man, but that, as an authentically 19th-century character, genuinely desires a husband who makes her feel protected, at least as long as she feels she can love him …. and he respects her choices, of course. That’s always the rub, and one of the things that makes a historical romance succeed or fail for me is whether the hero comes across as plausibly respectful and respecting of women’s rights and personhood, within the context of the time and place in which the story is set. So much of this is as much about the male characters as it is about the female ones.

In spite of the intense financial pressures he’s facing, Alex is remarkably noble; the clear exception as a humane employer in a city where his fellow mill owners are a pack of standard-issue greedy, corrupt, self-interested bad guys. Because how could Polly fall in love with a man who would cut wages or jobs in order to turn a better profit?

Hard Questions  I admire the ways in which Lofty’s story tackles inequality and class along with gender, embodying a valuable, if not 100% successful, intersectional awareness.

Here’s a particularly interesting passage that demonstrates both the virtues, and the occasional missteps in Lofty’s historical contextualizing:

…she smiled at the sounds of her life. Her family. Her safe, familiar place.

Although she loved the security, a small part of her wished for some quiet – a place of her own. Then she imagined how lonely such a life would be. She needed the vigor and purpose and brazen, devil-may-care happiness of her community. She pushed out of her pallet and headed behind the curtain to change into her gown and apron.

After a quick trip to the communal bath…  The family living space was a hazard of rumpled blankets that needed to be layered in the corner. She picked her way over her brothers’ boots. (p.116)

I love the way the details of how a large family lives in a tenement flat are sketched out in a few sentences that suggest intimacy along with inconvenience, lack of privacy, discomfort and hygiene challenges. But I stumbled over the willful characterization of the working class community as happy-go-lucky, hard-working, “secure” poor people. While I applaud the deliberate and unusual (in a romance) strategy of choosing not to make this a grinding poverty, rags-to-riches story, and to show Polly’s home life as stable and happy, if poor, there were times when the vision of tenement life and the the plucky factory workers just felt off. Something about the casual language seems to replicate, rather than interrogate, an Every(wo)man factory worker stereotype, and I’m again reminded of Toynbee’s Downton critique about the happy servants and benevolent masters.

I’m having trouble deciding how much to dwell on the things that bothered me, because I really liked the idea of this romance and this couple, but maybe it’s just too much of a stretch — maybe they just both had to be so exceptional that it doesn’t quite hold together.

Still, exceptionality can make for terrific storytelling.  And here I can insert my customary Outlander reference: the tale of Jamie and Claire is a ripping good yarn and a romance for the ages, but as Abigail Nussbaum so effectively points out in her wonderful essay on the Starz series, it is “…nevertheless the story of a woman who is unique, who wins love and respect by not being like those other girls.”

This is the problem with Alex and Polly — in spite of the careful research and well-crafted historical setting, in order to make the story work they each have to be so unique, so “not like those other girls” (or boys) that it feels almost forced.  Polly is a lot like Nussbaum’s take on Outlander’s Claire:

Her success was achieved not by toppling the system that discriminated against her, but by being the exception to that rule, gaining the admiration of men and the love of one particularly hunky and special one. (Asking the Wrong Questions, October 9, 2014)

Even as I have an id response to charismatic couples and unique heroes and heroines like Polly and Alex, Jamie and Claire — they’re all true badasses in their own way, after all —  I feel tired of the sameness of the pattern. Romance between Two Exceptionals, and exceptionality itself, is more exposed in the context of HistRom than in contemporary romance, for example. Even if at the end of the story the Christie mill tops the list of Victorian Glasgow’s “Best Places to Work” survey, the compromise and change Alex and Polly achieve is still exceptional, because a happy ending with a side helping of systemic change is too tall an order.

Lofty is associated with the Unusual Historicals blog (she founded it, though is no longer an active contributor) and she outlined her strategy for “unusual historicals” in romance during the RT panel discussion. Yes, the genre finds itself forced to grapple with the tension between the historical status of women and contemporary post-feminist ideals of female agency and autonomy. To work within that tension, while preserving historical authenticity, immersing the reader in a place and time and avoiding the refuge of “lite” wallpaper-style fairytales, presents a real challenge. Lofty’s solution is to dig deep into the historical record to find intriguing and unusual circumstances, settings, and stories where an empowered heroine, or a feminist hero, could plausibly be situated. Nussbaum sees parallels with the “special girl” proto-feminist heroines of YA historical fiction my generation grew up reading. It’s a step in the right direction, and can work to make for a good story, but it takes a very nuanced and thoughtful approach to deliver both the charismatic, “special” protagonists while simultaneously interrogating and exploring the systems and conditions above and through which these exceptional people are held up.

So I’m left with a feeling of ambivalence, and I think this is why it’s taken me so long to make this post. It’s always easier to write a rave or a rant, and as with so many historicals I read nowadays, my response is necessarily happening on two levels. If the characters are strong and compelling and the romance sparkles, I find I still prefer historical romance, even when I find myself challenged by ahistorical content or considerations.

Starlight is book two of a series about the Christie siblings. Book one, Flawless, tells the story of Alex’s sister Vivienne, who must earn her inheritance by profitably running a diamond mine in colonial South Africa. Talk about going beyond the ballroom to an unusual historical circumstance ripe with possibility for intersectional exploration. I’ve also heard good things on twitter about her earlier medievals, so I’m looking forward to reading more Lofty.

Books, Blogs, Blackout: a small post for solidarity

Some of the people who find their way here to my intermittent and idiosyncratic romance/book blog will already be all too familiar with the story behind the book review & blogging blackout that has affected much of my online romance reading community this week. My dear friend in bloggery, Miss Bates, posted a succinctly perfect summary, and there are some very good lengthy analyses, both from within the book blogging community, and from broader online commentary and criticism sites.

Late last week a well-connected published YA author wrote, and The Guardian published, a lengthy memoir about her obsession with a negative online review of her book, subsequent research and identification of the psuedonymous reviewer, and her in-person unsolicited interactions with said reviewer. I’m sort of happy to report that until this controversy broke last weekend, I’d never heard of this author, or her apparently well-received debut novel. The bookish corners of the internet and twitter have exploded with the spectacle of an online feud (Salon called it a “battle of the trolls”) between an author and a reader that got taken way way offline into stalker territory.

thou shaltI don’t have much to add to the good summaries I just linked to and it’s a near-meaningless gesture for me to “blackout” Badass Romance for a week. Even at my most prolific, I barely manage a post a week, and lately it’s been barely a post a month. Plus, I don’t actually post very many straightforward book reviews. And here I am finally getting this post up on Friday – ugh, what a week! Still, I want to put this book blog on the record in this matter.

I am speaking up to add my voice in saying that as a lifelong reader (and bigtime consumer of the product that we call fiction), it’s not OK with me when authors seek to control reception and interpretation of their published work. If you’re not up to the challenge of either staying away from or putting up with whatever ideas and responses your published prose generates, then you should keep your prose to yourself and not ask people to pay for it. Even if someone is saying really “mean” things about your book, there’s no insisting that they’re wrong or that they “misread” or “misunderstood” — your prose is out in the world and is subject to review, criticism, and interpretation. I do understand that trolls do exist on the internet, but in terms of reviews that “attack” your book, please remember that once your book is published you are no longer in control of the “meaning” of your words. Every time someone reads them, meaning is created in the interaction between reader and text. Sometimes that interaction, or meaning, will be a compelling or profound insight. Sometimes it’s going to be a DNF. Either way, you get paid to put your words out there, and most online reviewers are there for the love of books and reading. If I want to speak/blog/review on condition of anonymity (or psuedonymity), so be it.

(I’m not going to waste time addressing the Goodreads mess in detail. I have an account but I never really spend time reviewing or discussing there and yes, I do know that some authors feel “bullied” by people who post 1-star reviews when they haven’t read the book. Is there meaning in that? I guess it depends on what else is going on that would cause someone to bother to do that for a particular book or author. I will say that I do believe book reviewing ought to involve a response to the words on the page and not so much engaging in critiques of an author’s persona or behavior, except inasmuch as they are in some ways public figures whose IRL words and actions are sometimes quoted/cited.)

The leap from twitter or Goodreads pushback against negative reviews to offline, IRL stalking of a so-called “bully” blogger (just to be clear, I think this is an appalling misuse of the term “bully”) is in some ways just an extreme (and illegal) extension of the misguided notion that when you put a product in the marketplace it’s somehow OK for you, as the seller of that product, to confront and harass consumers of your product into liking it, using it, and talking about it, only in ways acceptable to you. Were these authors who want to call reviewers and bloggers “bullies” all just overly helicopter-parented and endlessly “good job!!”-ed?? The behavior enshrined in the author’s memoir last week really does speak to me in some way of arrested development, though I hesitate to use such terms since I am so far from an expert in psychology.

The other way to look at the episode, and in particular to look at the case of a serious print and online media outlet that has legitimized the voice of a self-admitted obsessed reader-stalking author and given her a platform for her self-absorbed complaints about the online “bullies” and trolls of Goodreads and other book forums, is to frame it in the concise and terrifically apt words of Danielle Binks, on the writers/writing site Kill Your Darlings, as a case of “privilege feeding narcissim.”  And this is the element which I find so insidious and odious that it’s pushed me to stick my toe in the water of the controversy and join in saying #HaleNo by making this post.

I have other thoughts about author/reader spaces and authorial control of interpretation (yes, Outlander-related, for those who may be reading between these lines…) but will have to save them for another time since starting now, and for about a week (ETA: well, OK, probably longer), I’m not blogging.

Recent Reading: 3 books I’m still thinking about

I’ve been reading a lot since my late summer vacation gave me the time and space to delve back into longer fiction, non-romance novels, and a broader range of books than I’ve read in several years. I’m reading more, and blogging less. It’s a little ironic, when I think of how I’ve let the blog lapse in spite of all the good “material” about which I could be crafting posts — in contrast to months last year when I was having trouble finding books I really wanted to read, really thinking about my choices and feeling the constant urge to write about the few books I was managing to read.  I feel way too rusty to take on a long review post, but here’s a quick peek at 3 books I’ve read since Labor Day that have stayed with me, and made me glad to be reading more widely again.

8177577The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt  I agree with Laura Miller’s take on the Dickensian plot-twisty quality of Tartt’s obsessively readable tale. And like her, I was swept up in the novel’s evocation of the magical Manhattan of an earlier, childhood vision – the New York City of my own visits-to-Grandmommy childhood, and the touchstone books Harriet the Spy and From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.  It’s a view of museum-going, antiques-aware, upper middle class privilege that feels dated and old-fashioned, possibly nostalgic for some readers.

When Miller interviews Tartt for Salon, the two have an interesting conversation about female protagonists and literary norms related to romance and marriage plots. If I had more of my blogging mojo these days, this would be the part where I spin off to deconstruct their discourse and challenge “literary” assumptions about the role of romance in fiction…. but not today. With regard to this particular book I also really liked the questions Evgenia Peretz asks about it, and about literary vs genre fiction, in her comprehensive and helpful summary of the critical battleground over The Goldfinch for Vanity Fair. I haven’t got much else to say about it — I just enjoyed the chance to sink into a dense (yes, I know some would say overwritten) and thoughtful novel of loss, identity, crime, and art that felt sort of like Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler meets Breaking Bad.

81xpholOZ8L._SL1500_The Secret River, by Kate Grenville To be honest, I found this book at the library after picking up one of its sequels, Sarah Thornhill, because it (the sequel, actually the third book in the loose trilogy) looked a bit like a romance novel. I saw that it was the 3rd book, and went hunting for the 1st. Which turned out to be the award-winning (Commonwealth Prize, Booker finalist) novel of one family’s journey from grinding poverty along the Thames to prosperity and prominence on the banks of the Hawkesbury River in New South Wales, by way of an early (1806) transport via convict ship and a violent massacre, the legacy of which leaves scars on the land and all who come after. Although The Secret River was new to me, it is of course widely read and discussed. To sum up with brevity what this book signifies, there’s not much I can say to add to this brilliantly spare note it received in The New Yorker.

The protagonist, William Thornhill, is at once haunted by his own complicity and actions, and determined to carve a life for his family that is recognizable to them, and their contemporaries, according to their limited worldview. The ways in which European customs in attempting to wrest a living from the land are in themselves a violence, and in stark contrast to the fluid ways of the people who lived on the land for centuries before, have seldom been so devastatingly and simply rendered, and I have read many many works of historical fiction set in the North American colonial context where Old and New Worlds also clashed with not-so-secret rivers of blood.

In the second book, The Lieutenant, Grenville went back to the exploratory voyage of the First Fleet in 1788 to tell the tale of a William Dawes-like astronomer and linguist and his very different journey, of discovery and friendship – sadly, I foundered reading this book after too many pages and pages of interactions where the protagonist and his Gadigal friends exchanged vocabulary words, and it was a DNF for me. This may have been simply because I did not find the earnest lieutenant as interesting as the morally ambiguous Thornhill. I did return to the Thornhill saga to read the 3rd book, the one that originally caught my eye, and found, again, the story of this family, and the families displaced by this family, much more compelling and emotional. In the end, Sarah Thornhill contained a romance of sorts, but it was a harsh and dispiriting tale that really had no way to offer a happy ending. Perhaps the best that can be said of Sarah and her descendants is that they craft lives around figuring out ways to make the best of a bad history and poor situation.

14568987The Art Forger, by B.A. Shapiro   I so rarely read contemporary fiction, yet in the wake of The Goldfinch this caught my eye. I was a little worried that it was going to be sort of Goldfinch-lite, maybe a “women’s fiction” version about a plucky artist (forger) and her exploits, but I was sucked in by its explicit use of the Gardner heist at the core of the central mystery. If you live in Boston and/or spend time in art museums, it’s hard not to be a little obsessed about the Gardner heist, particularly if one of the stolen paintings was the subject of a 10-page undergraduate Art History paper you wrote back in the early ’80’s.

What I found was indeed “lighter” in many ways than The Goldfinch, but this book offered a more powerful tale of authenticity and falsehood than I expected. For anyone who has visited the Gardner Museum, or speculated about the world’s most notorious art crime, this alternate history of the collection, with its oddly fascinating level of detail about the techniques and history of art forgery, is pretty good reading. At its heart, this is a deftly woven past/present exploration of female creativity, forced choices, and compromise in the male-dominated worlds of contemporary art (the painter protagonist, Claire Roth) and 19th century art collecting (the “scandalous” Isabella Stewart Gardner).

Still not springing for Starz: my vacation interlude with an Outlandish old flame

More about summer reading, and my vacation interlude with Jamie & Claire

I watched one episode of the new Outlander television series while vacationing on Cape Cod last week. Originally, I had hoped to watch the first episode (which Starz has made available to stream for free anywhere you can get online) together with my local Outlander posse – a small band of IRL reader friends and wicked smart ladies I met first in a fan forum – but we couldn’t make the timing work. Truthfully, I was more inclined to engage with this whole thing as a group activity, given the weird ambivalence I’ve been experiencing (and posting about), in having the object of such an intense personal reading and fan experience (nearly a decade ago now) become such a mainstream pop culture phenomenon.

I don’t pay for premium cable channels and I wasn’t going to change that policy, even for Outlander. I usually wait for a whole season of something good (Game of Thrones, or Boardwalk Empire) to become available some other way, and felt prepared to do this for Outlander, even though it means putting blinders on for 4 months of weekly new episode buzz and reactions taking over my tweetstream.

photo (96)And – it was late August on the Cape in a wonderful rambling beach house with rooms to spare and comfy reading furniture, rope swings, and a cranberry bog down the lane. It was the classic unplugged vacation. No tv, and no wi fi in the house. I didn’t tell the girls I had season 1 of Black Sails (Arrrggh, perfect for vacationing in a historic area known as “the sea captain’s town”) on my laptop, nor that when I ran out of those episodes (watched late at night after they were asleep – it was OK, mostly because maniacal Toby Stephens is kind of fun) I would on a whim decide to use my 3G iPhone to stream the free Outlander premiere.

But this was the extent of my tv watching, and mostly I read, as did they. All of us reading together, for hours and hours, between walks on the flats in the Bay, flying kites, crafty tie dye projects and bike rides to the general store. The weather was gorgeous – like early fall, dry and mild, not even hot enough to make us want to swim all that much, and other than a gigantic bee sting that made my leg swell up, gout-like, it was idyllic and relaxing. The first such sojourn in a long time that evoked family vacations during my own adolescence, where my novel reading consumed huge chunks of the day, without comment or consequence.

So –  one of the hefty books I read was the newest installment in Diana Gabaldon’s epic Outlander series, WRITTEN IN MY OWN HEART’S BLOOD, dubbed “MOBY” in the Gabaldon fan canon for some inexplicable reason that also evokes a seafaring New England industry and accompanying literary tradition. More about my take on the new book in a future post, I hope. I think if not for the chance to read this new Jamie and Claire material over a fairly condensed and uninterrupted 4-5 day period, I might not have re-connected with the Frasers and Mackenzies sufficient to compel me to watch one episode of the show as a standalone. But I’ll admit, when I finished MOBY, I experienced a faint echo of the old “I need more!” that so intensely colored my original reading experience of the first 6 books, back in 2004-05. Where to turn? Starz.com of course.

Outlander S1E1: Sassenach  @RomanceProf asked me what I liked and didn’t like about the one hour of Outlander that I watched. And I realize now that while it feels like I liked it, overall, when I try to articulate anything specific, there are more things I didn’t like. So here’s my impressionistic summary – of both, likes and dislikes. Just one longtime Outlander reader, well past the first blush of intense obsession, possibly also past the unfortunate tipping point towards cynicism, but fairly well steeped in The Books, reacting to the first episode.

outlander-premiere-caitriona-balfe-vases-scene-starzOn Claire: Liked I loved the sequence with Claire and the vase in the shop window, with the voiceover exposition about her peripatetic, rootless childhood.  I don’t remember the bit about the vase from the book, but it was used effectively here, and I kept flashing forward in the story, to the numerous times she is displaced and forced to take up housekeeping again from scratch. Her comments about the vase reminded me of how I always felt about owning an ironing board. Once you did, you must be a settled grown-up.

Didn’t Like If only I didn’t feel like Caitriona Balfe as 1940’s Claire was playing the role as if playing Cate-Blanchett-Playing-Claire-Randall. There was a studied quality to her manner and movements that didn’t seem authentic. I’ve heard it gets better when she’s 1740’s Claire. As many have noted, she may have ClaireHair, but her physical presence is far more vintage Hollywood than ‘fine wide arse’.

On Sex and the Combat Nurse:  Liked I agree with early reviewers who commended the show for presenting an epic fantasy drama with a central female protagonist, where the sex is about female gratification and not yet another boobalicious vehicle for pleasuring the male gaze.

Outlander-Frank-Claire-Castle-Leoch

outlander-claire-frank-flashbacks-starzDidn’t Like But did there really have to be three un-sexy Claire/Frank sex scenes in the first 25 minutes?? Truth is, while the unique and compelling bawdiness of the books is definitely a Gabaldon hallmark, and perhaps the most immediately marketable element in translating to a cable series, I honestly don’t remember feeling like the sex was center stage all the time in the novel. I can’t decide whether the ick factor for me with watching Balfe and Tobias Menzies is just residual Jamie obsession annihilating any chance for the show to make Frank seem sexy, or if the show itself is (over)using these painfully awkward interludes to deflect/cushion the blow of Claire’s time traveling “adultery” for viewers new to the story.

On Swashbucklers and Genre:  Liked Again, I am 100% in favor of presenting a swashbuckling adventure drama that’s lusty and violent and heroic, as told via a feminine POV. Of course I wish it wasn’t so unusual as to require calling attention. But I find myself oddly gratified every time I read a positive or optimistic review of the series, especially those from “external” perspectives – anyone with little or no experience of the books. It’s not that I need or care about having my affinity for the books validated by new fans or (especially) highbrow and/or male critics and/or viewers, but the show does need to be considered on its own merits as mainstream entertainment, and I’m surprised to find it satisfying when someone expresses interest or admiration for it. I know I should probably be annoyed that people keep alluding to the book’s “bodice-ripper” elements, or praising the show when they clearly would never have considered reading the book which, for those outside the cultlike Outlander following has for so long been dismissed as romance even as it defies conventional genre categorization. I could and should probably unpack this odd mix of emotional/intellectual responses, but that will take more time and words than I have right now.

Didn’t Like Compared to the kickass title sequences of a show like Game of Thrones, HBO’s Rome (best titles ever, IMO) or even something completely different like Homeland (which also has a female protagonist), the opening titles are a total snooze – it was a great opportunity to do something visually powerful with strong, memorable graphics, and it just felt like a cheesy travel ministry video for Scotland blended with History Channel re-enactments of swordly battles and chick flick misty fairytale romantic images of the central couple, castles, and horses.  The music is too wistful. The whole thing just needed  to be BOLDER, and should have been more creative, to live up to Claire and Jamie as a badass power couple at the center of an epic drama about history, identity, war, loss, family, fealty, and community.

On Book-to-Screen Issues:  Liked The casting of many secondary characters is spot on, from James Fleet’s affable Reverend Wakefield to Tracey Wilkinson as Mrs. Graham the druid housekeeper, with furrowed brow over Claire’s palm revealing bifurcated love and marriage lines. And I know with only one short episode under my belt, there will be many more fun and revelatory “Aha!” moments where a casting choice clicks into place for me. The beauty of screen adaptations of beloved novels lies in such moments where the actors and surrounding visuals somehow inhabit and amplify the characters we’ve been carrying in our hearts and heads, supporting and expanding whatever alchemical connection has happened between individual reader and text. Like so many Outlander fans, I experienced at least passing worry that the casting of Jamie and/or Claire could somehow “ruin” or contaminate my inner view of them, or indeed of the whole narrative and my reading experience. Fortunately, as it turns out I’m already a decade past that first obsessive reading experience and at this distance the intensity of the connection is much diminished. I like Heughan and Balfe fine for the roles, and thoroughly enjoyed watching them together.

Outlander_Cast_Dougal_420x560_v2 Graham-McTavish-headshotDidn’t Like But ooohhh nooooooo, what have they done to Dougal??!? I really hate to find myself experiencing that odd, impotent fan outrage over a screen version of a fictional character. Who can take seriously the sort of whinging along the lines of  “but in the books he’s supposed to be…” that makes people poke fun at Outlander or Westeros fan communities? I must just go on the record with my personal view that Dougal would have looked younger, and that in the books he came alive as a pretty sexy, intense, if morally ambiguous, dude (GerryButler. Just saying.). And I’m not seeing that here. He only needs to be about 20 years older than Jamie, right?

Gabaldon has said, I think, that when she first began to write Outlander she thought the hero would be the leader of the clan’s war band — she gave him the name Dougal, for her husband Doug. But then the wounded young warrior in the corner, fiercely tended by Claire (apart from my issue with the casting — or maybe it’s just the fussy styling? — of Graham MacTavish, this scene was fantastic), took over the story, apparently. Still, I don’t think the show needed to make Dougal such a graybeard — MacTavish could certainly play a younger, sexier badass. In the novel, Dougal’s complexity and deep-rooted ambivalence about Jamie as a potential challenger is one of the real strengths, and it includes a significant dose of sexual magnetism and interest in Claire. I understand a choice to streamline the narrative, but Dougal’s ambiguous magnetism is a loss, in my view, at least in terms of how the dynamics appear in this first episode. And yes, I fully recognize that not everything can fit in the first hour and subsequent episodes may hold promise of more…but for me he just doesn’t feel right for the way I read Dougal and his story.

screen-shot-2014-08-05-at-8-50-08-pmOn Jamie:  Liked  The much-vaunted chemistry between Balfe and Sam Heughan was indeed satisfying, and I loved the scene where he holds her at swordpoint and prevents her escape. This follows a scene in which the villain, British officer Black Jack Randall, assaults Claire with a sword to the neck and near rape. In contrast, Heughan carries off his sword-wielding pursuit with the perfect blend of charm and force, ensuring that Jamie’s gentlemanly yet powerful use of the blade reads as heroic and hot — and of course by now the viewer also understands that in preventing her “escape” he is also rescuing Claire from falling into the clutches of Jack Randall again. The scene worked beautifully to establish the beginnings of his physical awareness of her (“ye don’t appear to weigh too much, I’ll throw ye over my shoulder…”), along with his Red Jamie urge to protect and possess. Also I really liked Claire’s mad face in this scene; their mutual respect and wariness was crystal clear.

Didn’t Like I keep tripping up on the question of whether I’d continue watching this show if I’d come to it as an Outlander virgin. It was sort of measured and dull, lots of exposition (which is the bane of any premiere episode) to set up the characters and plot, and I can’t help thinking that it didn’t do enough to hook someone who hasn’t already been bitten by the Jamie/Claire bug in some way. Some of the scenes with Frank lurking around the ruins and the stones, researching his ancestors, watching the local pagans on Samhain at Craigh na Dun, while loaded with portent if you know what to listen for, just came across as tedious and the stunning visuals of the sunrise ceremony were overplayed. Heughan and Balfe are compelling together but was there enough intriguing detail about who Jamie is and why he and Dougal et al are so bloody desperate?

Yes, the final scene, meant to draw us in and bring us back for episode 2, has the fugitives arriving at forbidding Castle Leoch, which Claire and Frank had explored in its ruined 1945 state. But as a cliffhanger ending it was more than a little flat, and without already knowing all that’s to come (there was minimal explanation yet given for why they are on the run from the British troops, other than the general offense of riding around the Highlands while Scottish), I’m not sure it would give me the fire in the belly to make sure I “tune in next week.”  What was missing was the complexity and challenge of the situation in the Highlands in 1743, which I have no doubt is already coming into much clearer focus as the weeks go by.

Bottom Line From what I’ve been hearing since I returned to the twitterverse and started catching up on all kinds of news, things really get going with the show in the second and third episodes, and I’m glad to hear it. Still, since I do already know what happens, I’m not rushing to pay Verizon to add Starz to my cable lineup.  It’ll be too late to be part of the Fall 2014 Outlander bandwagon, but I’ll probably end up binge watching the whole season on my next summer vacation.