In reviewing this book, I'm breaking my own rule to not recommend something before I've finished reading it completely; but I love it so much that I can't help it. I adore stories, true or fictional, about women pushing the boundaries of society, and Romantic Outlaws is just that. It is a dual biography that, in alternating chapters, tells the story of Mary Shelley, who would grow up to author Frankenstein, and Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women and the mother Shelley would never know. Wollstonecraft died only weeks after giving birth to Shelley, who was her second child. It's fascinating how similar the lives of these women turned out to be, though they barely intertwined. Both were avid advocates for women, and passionately dedicated themselves to the betterment of their lot in Victorian society; both became writers of work that has stood the test of time. So far, I have been enthralled by the lives of these two remarkable women, and impressed with Gordon's skillful writing. From the opening page, where we discover that Shelly learned to read on her mother's tombstone (perhaps a fitting start for the girl who would become a founding mother of horror literature) the book reads like a historical novel.This is a must read for fans of history, classic literature or those with an interest in the history of women's rights.
Though immediately drawn to it (maybe it was the elephant on the cover), I was reluctant to actually read this book. Why torture myself by reading more about the plight of elephants, even if it's only a fictional account? Being an animal lover, I hate to think of creatures as intelligent and complex as elephants enduring hardships such as poaching and captivity for human entertainment. However, like I did with Water for Elephants (another worthy read), I decided to put my reservations aside and read the book anyway-- and I am so glad I did. In only 221 pages (far too few if you ask me), James tells a story unlike any other I've read. It alternates between three perspectives; that of the poacher, a filmmaker, and an elephant. Each narrator has an individual tale to tell, and all three intertwine together to tell a bigger story about the South Indian ivory trade. Each perspective is unique and absolutely vital to the narrative. "Gravedigger" (he is known by many names) is an elephant who, at a young age, witnessed the killing of several members of his herd, including his mother, by poachers. After that he was taken into captivity where he would learn to perform in parades and ceremonies. From there, Gravedigger experiences several more traumas (I don't want to give too much away) and is eventually driven to become a ruthless man-killer. I was impressed with James's characters and how she moved fluidly between each narrative. It's not easy to write a story from an animal's perspective without coming off as corny or unrealistic, but she did an incredible job. The sections from the elephant's perspective were beautifully and simplistically written. Most of all I loved how James conveyed the emotional and mental illness experienced by Gravedigger. The capacity of animals, even such intelligent species and elephants, to experience mental illness and emotional trauma isn't commonly acknowledged. Yet James wrote it into her story in a way that was both subtle and powerful. You'll have to read the book to see what I'm talking about, because no words of mine could possibly do this part of the narrative justice. Perhaps even more impressive was the unexpected empathy I felt for the main poacher in the story, Jayan. As I mentioned, I am an animal lover, and I was prepared to hate any ivory seekers this novel put in front of me, but the author wouldn't let me. Where I looked for a monster, I found a complex and flawed character fighting a losing battle against poverty and nature. I can't recommend this book enough.
I've always enjoyed Joan of Arc as an historical figure for two reasons. One is that she is one of the first female warriors in recorded history, which is particularly impressive when you take into account that she was born in Medieval France, where women were expected to be wives, mothers and nothing more. The second reason is that so much about Joan's life is up to speculation. Some still regard her as a Saint and truly believe that she was anointed by god, while others think she slyly fabricated a religious calling to escape her lot in life. It's also possible that the "voices" Joan claimed to hear were a symptom of an undiagnosed mental illness. We may never know the truth, but it is sure interesting to speculate.That being said, this is the first book I've read about Joan of Arc in which the author was not putting forth her own theory. Joan of Arc: A life Transfigured is a straight timeline of Joan's life and everything we know about her. I was surprised to learn how little I actually knew about this fascinating woman! Harrison was the perfect person to write this book. She was dealing with many different sources and muddled records, but she pieced everything together in a way that was simple and enthralling to read. Somehow she managed to weave in an element of suspense that made me want to keep reading, even though--of course-- we know how this story ends. All throughout the book are excerpts from Joan's final interrogations before she was executed. Her story is undoubtedly a tragic one, but also one of the most incredible that history has to offer.