Book Review: Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

Title: Plain Bad Heroines
Author: Emily M. Danforth
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: October 20, 2020
Length: 608 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The award-winning author of The Miseducation of Cameron Post makes her adult debut with this highly imaginative and original horror-comedy centered around a cursed New England boarding school for girls—a wickedly whimsical celebration of the art of storytelling, sapphic love, and the rebellious female spirit.

Our story begins in 1902, at The Brookhants School for Girls. Flo and Clara, two impressionable students, are obsessed with each other and with a daring young writer named Mary MacLane, the author of a scandalous bestselling memoir. To show their devotion to Mary, the girls establish their own private club and call it The Plain Bad Heroine Society. They meet in secret in a nearby apple orchard, the setting of their wildest happiness and, ultimately, of their macabre deaths. This is where their bodies are later discovered with a copy of Mary’s book splayed beside them, the victims of a swarm of stinging, angry yellow jackets. Less than five years later, The Brookhants School for Girls closes its doors forever—but not before three more people mysteriously die on the property, each in a most troubling way.

Over a century later, the now abandoned and crumbling Brookhants is back in the news when wunderkind writer, Merritt Emmons, publishes a breakout book celebrating the queer, feminist history surrounding the “haunted and cursed” Gilded-Age institution. Her bestselling book inspires a controversial horror film adaptation starring celebrity actor and lesbian it girl Harper Harper playing the ill-fated heroine Flo, opposite B-list actress and former child star Audrey Wells as Clara. But as Brookhants opens its gates once again, and our three modern heroines arrive on set to begin filming, past and present become grimly entangled—or perhaps just grimly exploited—and soon it’s impossible to tell where the curse leaves off and Hollywood begins.

A story within a story within a story and featuring black-and-white period illustrations, Plain Bad Heroines is a devilishly haunting, modern masterwork of metafiction that manages to combine the ghostly sensibility of Sarah Waters with the dark imagination of Marisha Pessl and the sharp humor and incisive social commentary of Curtis Sittenfeld into one laugh-out-loud funny, spellbinding, and wonderfully luxuriant read.

This 600+ page book almost defies description, but I’ll give it a shot!

“I wish some one would write a book about a plan bad heroine so that I might feel in real sympathy with her.” – Mary MacLane

Plain Bad Heroines is a story-within-a-story book, with interlocking characters and motifs that center on the (supposedly) cursed and/or haunted grounds of the Brookhants School for Girls — an early 20th century institution for the education of society girls, located on a wooded estate in upper-crust Rhode Island.

Mary MacLane

In 1902, students Clara and Flo are inspired by the writings of (real-life) Mary MacLane and form a secret society, the Plain Bad Heroines, to celebrate her work and her life. Clara and Flo are in love, but after a disastrous trip home and a ride back to school with her judgmental cousin, Clara storms off into the woods to meet up with Flo, only for both girls to meet a ghastly end by being attacked by swarms of yellow jackets.

In our own timeline, the events from 1902 gain new notoriety after Merritt Emmons publishes The Happenings at Brookhants at the age of sixteen. Now years later, the book is being made into a film by an edgy director, with superstar “celesbian” Harper Harper committed to star as Flo. Merritt is on board as a producer, and she’s not pleased when Audrey Wood, a B-list actor who bombed her audition in a major way, is cast as Clara.

As the production cast and crew settle in to film on location at Brookhants, weird things start to happen, and there’s much more going on than can be easily explained. Is the place truly haunted? Or is this Hollywood manipulation at its most devious?

The plot weaves backward and forward in time, cutting between the modern-day movie storyline and the complicated relationships between Harper, Merritt, and Audrey, and the timeline that includes the aftermath of Clara and Flo’s deaths and the impact on Libbie, the school headmistress, and her lover, Alex (Alexandra).

There’s so much more to both pieces of the story than is readily apparent, and the author carefully layers on more and more hints and explanations, constantly deepening the story and shifting its direction and meaning.

Plain Bad Heroines is proudly, unabashedly queer, and its (plain, bad) heroines make no attempts to follow anyone’s rules but their own. They love as they please, and take inspiration from Mary MacLane’s own bold pronouncements when they need courage. The relationships are intricate and shifting, in both timelines, and the character refuse to be cookie-cutter types — author Emily M. Danforth does an amazing job of managing such a large cast and making sure each individual character has a life and personality of her own.

This book is BIG, and it takes concentration, but I could not stop reading once I started. The writing style is clever and filled with footnotes and commentary that are snarky and funny and informative. There are also dire and tragic happenings — and this IS a horror story too, with plenty of creepy, spine-tingling moments.

Black and white illustrations throughout the book add to the overall mood and make reading this book feel like an experience.

Yellow jackets are scary anyway, but now, having read Plain Bad Heroines, I’m pretty sure I’m terrified of them. Read the book — you’ll see what I mean.

I really only have two complaints about Plain Bad Heroines, and the first is not with the story itself but with the layout. Whoever picked the typeface for this book should have paid more attention to the asterisks that lead to the footnotes — I almost never saw them (they’re tiny), and had to constantly go back and search the page to see where the footnotes connect to.

My second complaint is a larger one, which is that I wasn’t completely satisfied with the ending. It leaves a bunch of unanswered questions, and I’m a little frustrated that certain elements didn’t get more clarity and resolution.

Still, this is overall a marvelous and unique book, and I laughed and shivered my way through it. The final scene takes place at the Cannes Festival premiere of The Happenings at Brookhants, and all I could think was, damn! I wish this was a real movie, because it would be fascinating to see how it all worked out.

Plain Bad Heroines is a terrific read. Don’t miss it!

To learn more about the real Mary MacLane, visit The Mary MacLane Project.

Shelf Control #236: The Gown by Jennifer Robson

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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Title: The Gown
Author: Jennifer Robson
Published: 2018
Length: 371 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

“Millions will welcome this joyous event as a flash of color on the long road we have to travel.”—Sir Winston Churchill on the news of Princess Elizabeth’s forthcoming wedding

London, 1947: Besieged by the harshest winter in living memory, burdened by onerous shortages and rationing, the people of postwar Britain are enduring lives of quiet desperation despite their nation’s recent victory. Among them are Ann Hughes and Miriam Dassin, embroiderers at the famed Mayfair fashion house of Norman Hartnell. Together they forge an unlikely friendship, but their nascent hopes for a brighter future are tested when they are chosen for a once-in-a-lifetime honor: taking part in the creation of Princess Elizabeth’s wedding gown.

Toronto, 2016: More than half a century later, Heather Mackenzie seeks to unravel the mystery of a set of embroidered flowers, a legacy from her late grandmother. How did her beloved Nan, a woman who never spoke of her old life in Britain, come to possess the priceless embroideries that so closely resemble the motifs on the stunning gown worn by Queen Elizabeth II at her wedding almost seventy years before? And what was her Nan’s connection to the celebrated textile artist and holocaust survivor Miriam Dassin?

With The Gown, Jennifer Robson takes us inside the workrooms where one of the most famous wedding gowns in history was created. Balancing behind-the-scenes details with a sweeping portrait of a society left reeling by the calamitous costs of victory, she introduces readers to three unforgettable heroines, their points of view alternating and intersecting throughout its pages, whose lives are woven together by the pain of survival, the bonds of friendship, and the redemptive power of love.

How and when I got it:

I bought a copy in January 2019.

Why I want to read it:

I read so many stellar reviews when this book first came out. I don’t always love dual timeline historical fiction, but the synopsis for this book really intrigued me. After watching seasons 1 and 2 of The Crown, I’m very interested in learning more about Queen Elizabeth’s royal wedding. This novel’s focus on the people behind the scenes of the wedding preparations makes this sound like a really special read.

Plus, this is a good reminder for me to get caught up on The Crown season 3 before season 4 is released in November!

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!


__________________________________

Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments or link back from your own post, so I can add you to the participant list.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

Shelf Control #197: The Girl Who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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Title: The Girl Who Wrote in Silk
Author: Kelli Estes
Published: 2015
Length: 391 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Inara Erickson is exploring her deceased aunt’s island estate when she finds an elaborately stitched piece of fabric hidden in the house. As she peels back layer upon layer of the secrets it holds, Inara’s life becomes interwoven with that of Mei Lein, a young Chinese girl mysteriously driven from her home a century before. Through the stories Mei Lein tells in silk, Inara uncovers a tragic truth that will shake her family to its core — and force her to make an impossible choice.

Inspired by true events, Kelli Estes’s brilliant and atmospheric debut serves as a poignant tale of two women determined to do the right thing, and the power of our own stories.

How and when I got it:

I bought the e-book a year ago, when my book group selected this as an upcoming read.

Why I want to read it:

This is me being a bad book group member! The Girl Who Wrote in Silk was our group read for January 2019, and I had the best of intentions… and then time just slipped away, and I never got around to reading the book or participating in the discussion. A couple of months ago, I read the author’s newest book, Today We Go Home, and I absolutely loved it. It was a beautiful, moving story, and it made me very eager to finally go back and read the book I’d missed!

Plus, the plot does sound like something I’d enjoy. When well done, I love a dual timeline story, and between the secrets of the silk and the Pacific Northwest setting, this book sounds like it’ll be powerful and atmospheric.

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!

__________________________________

Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

Book Review: Today We Go Home by Kelli Estes

Seattle, Washington
Larkin Bennett has always known her place, whether it’s surrounded by her loving family in the lush greenery of the Pacific Northwest or conducting a dusty patrol in Afghanistan. But all of that changed the day tragedy struck her unit and took away everything she held dear. Soon after, Larkin discovers an unexpected treasure—the diary of Emily Wilson, a young woman who disguised herself as a man to fight for the Union in the Civil War. As Larkin struggles to heal, she finds herself drawn deeply into Emily’s life and the secrets she kept.

Indiana, 1861
The only thing more dangerous to Emily Wilson than a rebel soldier is the risk of her own comrades in the Union Army discovering her secret. But in the minds of her fellow soldiers, if it dresses like a man, swears like a man, and shoots like a man, it must be a man. As the war marches on and takes its terrible toll, Emily begins to question everything she thought she was fighting for.

Today We Go Home took my breath away.

In this dual timeline novel, we follow two separate but interwoven and related threads. The main character in the contemporary timeline is Larkin Bennett, a US Army veteran who receives a medical discharge after being wounded in action in Afghanistan, now suffering from PTSD and the tremendous guilt she feels over the death of her best friend. And as Larkin explores her friends’ personal effects, she finds a family treasure — the diary of Emily Wilson, who fought as a man in the Civil War. Through these two remarkable women, we see devotion to duty and family, as well as the toll that war takes on a person’s soul.

Larkin’s story is moving and tragic. She was never happier than in service to her country, and felt a calling to the military. Her best moments were when she and her friend Sarah were side by side, whether in college, in training, or in Kandahar. But Larkin, when we meet her, is emotionally destroyed by her experiences, turning to alcohol to numb herself and drown out the memories that haunt her every moment.

Larkin’s family is supportive (can I mention how much I love her grandmother and cousins?), and they do what they can to help, but there’s just so much that Larkin has to process on her own, and she resists reaching out for professional help. Her growing obsession with Emily’s diary gives her a purpose, and the more she reads, the more determined she becomes to both tell the stories of military women and to find out more about the real Emily Wilson.

Meanwhile, Emily’s story is equally powerful. After her father and oldest brother ride off to join the Indiana regiment heading to support the Union cause, Emily is left behind on the farm with her younger brother Ben, expected to just wait at home and be content with “women’s work”. When their father is killed and their brother takes ill, they set off to go take care of their brother, and from there, they decide to enlist. Emily is both called to serve and determined to protect Ben at all costs, and together, they join their late father’s regiment and learn to become soldiers.

Emily takes the name Jesse and poses as Ben’s brother, knowing that she must keep her gender a secret. She finds that she’s actually good at soldiering, and starts to love the freedom that comes from being seen as male — the freedom to work, to speak her mind, to not hide her skills, to pursue what she wants.

She would never again settle for a life where her every action, even her thoughts, were controlled by someone else. From now on, no matter where life took her, she would live on her own terms.

The threat of discovery is always present, and the true meaning of going to war doesn’t really sink in until the regiment enters its first battle and Emily gets a close-up view of shooting at the enemy and being shot at.

The general shook his head. “I will not send you back to the field. You can no longer impersonate a soldier, do you understand me?”

Emily had to look away from his accusing glare. She had not been impersonating a soldier. She had been a soldier. “Yes, sir.”

The author does an amazing job of weaving together these two stories. Some dual timeline books feel forced, or as if one only exists as a frame for the other. Not so here. You know it’s a well-done approach when both halves of the story feel so compelling that you hate to leave each one to switch to the other. When an Emily section would end, I’d want more… but then I’d get re-involved in Larkin’s story, and couldn’t imagine wanting to read anything else but her story.

Kelli Estes has clearly done a tremendous amount of research into both women serving in the Civil War and into the plight of today’s veterans, especially the staggering rate of PTSD and suicide among women veterans. She provides a list of reference materials as well as information on support for veterans at the end of the book, and is definitely doing a great service herself by calling attention to the issues confronting today’s combat veterans.

She set the diary aside, thinking about Emily’s struggles. They were timeless. Even now, over a hundred and fifty years later, female veterans faced many of the same challenges that Emily did: being seen as inferior because of her gender, not being able to find work after being discharged from the military, earning less than men, becoming homeless.

Some of the social commentary is really spot-on, such as Larkin’s anger over the general lack of interest and awareness she encounters once back in the US. To Larkin, she was serving in Afghanistan to protect the United States, yet most Americans seem indifferent or unaware of what’s going on there and the sacrifices being made by American service men and women. Likewise, she is understandably infuriated when a clueless man, who spots her wearing an Army t-shirt, asks her whether it’s her father or her brothers who served, failing to recognize the very real service of hundreds of thousands of women.

Today We Go Home is beautifully written and is so very powerful. I tore through this book probably faster than I should have, because I just couldn’t get enough of either Emily or Larkin and had to know how their stories would turn out. The emotional impact is strong and real. By the end, I felt such sorrow for their experiences, and yet hopeful and uplifted as well. And while Emily’s story is set in the past, Larkin’s story has an urgency to it, knowing that brave men and women are still facing the unbelievable struggles that come with serving in war settings and then coming back home afterward.

Don’t miss this amazing book. This goes on my list of top books for 2019.

Other reading resources:

For more on women in the Civil War, I highly recommend two excellent novels:

  • I Shall Be Near To You by Erin Lindsay McCabe (review)
  • Sisters of Shiloh by Kathy & Becky Hepinstall (review)

I don’t think I’ve read any other novels recently about contemporary women serving in the military, but I’d love some suggestions!

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The details:

Title: Today We Go Home
Author: Kelli Estes
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication date: September 3, 2019
Length: 401 pages
Genre: Contemporary/historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Shelf Control #143: Secrets of the Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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Title: Secrets of the Sea House
Author: Elisabeth Gifford
Published: 2013
Length: 303 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

In 1860, Alexander Ferguson, a newly ordained vicar and amateur evolutionary scientist, takes up his new parish, a poor, isolated patch on the remote Scottish island of Harris. He hopes to uncover the truth behind the legend of the selkies—mermaids or seal people who have been sighted off the north of Scotland for centuries. He has a more personal motive, too; family legend states that Alexander is descended from seal men. As he struggles to be the good pastor he was called to be, his maid Moira faces the terrible eviction of her family by Lord Marstone, whose family owns the island. Their time on the island will irrevocably change the course of both their lives, but the white house on the edge of the dunes keeps its silence long after they are gone.

It will be more than a century before the Sea House reluctantly gives up its secrets. Ruth and Michael buy the grand but dilapidated building and begin to turn it into a home for the family they hope to have. Their dreams are marred by a shocking discovery. The tiny bones of a baby are buried beneath the house; the child’s fragile legs are fused together—a mermaid child. Who buried the bones? And why? To heal her own demons, Ruth feels she must discover the secrets of her new home—but the answers to her questions may lie in her own traumatic past. The Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford is a sweeping tale of hope and redemption and a study of how we heal ourselves by discovering our histories.

How and when I got it:

I bought a copy several years ago, after hearing recommendations from book group friends.

Why I want to read it:

Okay, a) Scotland! But b) it just sounds like a good story, with a dual timeline, the myth of the selkies, and family secrets. I’ve heard really good things about this author, but haven’t read any of her work. Have you?

__________________________________

Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

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