A Spy in the House: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Agency: A Spy in the House by Y. S. LeeMary Quinn is twelve-years-old when she is arrested for theft and sentenced to hang in London in 1853.

Rescued from the gallows, Mary receives an extraordinary offer of an education and proper upbringing at Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls. Hidden behind the cover of a finishing school, The Agency works as an all-female investigative unit.

Five years later, with her training nearly complete, Mary is offered her first assignment working undercover as a lady’s companion. Stationed in a rich merchant’s home, Mary is tasked with helping along the investigation into missing cargo ships.

As Mary delves deeper into her investigation she soon discovers that everyone in the household is hiding something in A Spy in the House (2010) by Y. S. Lee.

A Spy in the House is Lee’s first novel. It is also the start of The Agency series (and consequently sometimes referred to as The Agency–by me at least).

Lee presents a well-researched, thoroughly engrossing mystery here. A Spy in the House evokes the gritty and glamorous parts of 1850s London with pitch-perfect descriptions. The dialog also feels true to the period with no jarring, obviously modern, turns of phrase.

The story is filled with twists and also some very smart observations about race, feminism and what being a woman with agency might have looked like in 1850s London. Although the ending is a bit rushed there is still an ideal balance between closure and hints of what to expect in future installments. The resolution is quite surprising in a way that is especially satisfying for a Victorian mystery.

Mary is a capable, pragmatic heroine who is as smart as she is endearing. With just a hint of romantic flirtation that is realistic and witty (and decidedly lacking in instant love), A Spy in the House

Possible Pairings:  I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You by Ally Carter, The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani, Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare, Nathaniel Fludd, Beastologist: Flight of the Phoenix by R. L. LaFevers with illustrations by Kelly Murphy,  Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld, Paranormalcy by Kiersten White, Sorcery and Cecelia by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevemer

In which I have thoughts about steampunk as a genre.

I love Steampunk. There is something very appealing about the steampunk aesthetic that combines modern technology with very Victorian sensibilities. I like that the books have a historical feel without quite being historical but also fantasy elements without quite being that either.

You can browse my “steampunk” tag to see all of the related reviews and posts (there are some book lists and Linktastic! posts as well). Yesterday I reviewed Etiquette & Espionage which is my most recent steampunk read.

Keeping in mind my deep and abiding love for the genre in general and the Leviathan series in particular, I’ve noticed something.

Steampunk books usually involve an English setting and in order to get in the right head-space, the narrative also involves a certain tone–you know, an English/Victorian tone. (It sounds made up but, trust me, if you read enough steampunk books you will see it.)

The problem I’ve noticed is that in adoption that tone and talking about those things that are inherent to steampunk (the clothes, the manners, the steam-powered inventions) it feels like a lot of steampunk books also become somehow flippant. Not that the writing is low quality or that anything about the book is cut-rate. It just feels, sometimes, like because the book is genre fiction (sub-genre fiction really since steampunk is so specific) that it isn’t allowed to take itself seriously. Instead of a deadpan (as it were) presentation of events we get a tongue-in-cheek kind of story.

Then I consider the fact that I didn’t notice that flippancy in Leviathan or its sequels. Which brings to mind other gender issues. Does Leviathan come across as more serious because it’s written by a male author? Does it come off that way because of a male protagonist? Does the focus on a military airship necessarily preclude elements that might create a flippant tone in other novels?

I don’t really have any answers here but it’s just something I noticed and wanted to talk about.

Do you ever think books don’t have permission to take themselves seriously? Does it matter? Is this all in my head?

Let’s talk it out in the comments!

Is all of this just in my head?

A Creature of Moonlight: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

A Creature of Moonlight by Rebecca HahnThe villagers have been talking of the woods all summer. More than usual. Farther from the woods than usual.

It’s one thing, now and then, for a stray bit of the woods to encroach. A well lost here, a path obstructed. Such things are to be expected.

This summer is different. The entirety of the woods seems to be moving in leaps and bounds, creeping closer than they have in years.

Marni knows the woods are dangerous place–a place of magic and wonder that often draws girls to it only to swallow them whole. Still, time and again, she finds herself sneaking there–away from Gramps, away from the prying eyes of the villagers who buy their flowers, away from the life that was snatched from her the day her mother was killed.

Marni has always walked a narrow path between the life the was stolen and the life she has with her Gramps. But now, with the woods moving closer and promises being made, Marni will have to decide where she will stand in A Creature of Moonlight (2014) by Rebecca Hahn.

A Creature of Moonlight is Hahn’s first novel.

Hahn masterfully weaves a world here where magic is as beautiful as it is dangerous–a world populated with calculating lords and kings as well as dragons and Phoenixes. Marni is a fascinating narrator, one who views both the humans and the woods with a healthy sense of skepticism. She is a strong heroine with a strong sense of self and an even stronger desire to secure her freedom.

She also has a very strange twang to her entire narration that is more reminiscent of a novel set in the Depression Era west (or just the West) than it is to this bit of higher fantasy. Marni reckons about many things and is none too afraid to say so neither. Her voice is often extremely jarring as readers are drawn repeatedly out of the story to ponder the choice of words on the page.

The story is typical coming of age fare as Marni learns more about both sides of her “family” such as they are and, over the course of the novel, comes into her own in various ways.

A Creature of Moonlight is decidedly short on peripheral characters, making the time spent in Marni’s head often claustrophobic as so much of the story centers on her inner conflicts. While her observations of the woods and at court are often entertaining and razor sharp, Marni’s motivations are never as clear as they should be.

While it is refreshing and modern to see Marni repeatedly turn down marriage proposals, the logic behind her deep conviction to not marry is murky at best–particularly given the specific set of obligations that will come with a life at court (which Marni adopts at one point in the plot).

Though often unsatisfying, A Creature of Moonlight remains a solid debut from an author to watch.

Possible Pairings: Tiger Lily by Jodi Lynn Anderson, Fire by Kristin Cashore, Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier, The Glass Casket by Templeman McCormick, The Near Witch by Victoria Schwab, Dust Girl by Sarah Zettel

I’m a feminist because . . . (Some #YesAllWomen links and my thoughts)

Before we get to the meat of this post, I need to share some background. (If that’s too much, it’s okay. Go and browse the #YesAllWoman tweets instead. If you read nothing else today, read that.)

Last week a man in Isla Vista California went on a killing spree. While men and women lost their lives before the gunman shot himself, the attack was fueled by a hatred of women. Building from what he considered unforgivable rejections, this man went out and killed people. In the wake of the attack and the ensuing tragedy, many online discussions began about misogyny and the fear women are often forced to deal with.

Here are some articles about the shooting and the ensuing #YesAllWoman tweets and its discussions (the tag was started by a very brave woman on twitter. She has since locked her account due to backlash and unwanted attention so I won’t link back.)

These links aren’t comprehensive because the tweets and articles are basically literally updating faster than I can keep up but this is a good cross-section of coverage and hopefully a good starting point if you haven’t had a chance to follow the tweets closely yet:

It has already been pointed out, and I’ll say it again: Of course Rodger isn’t like all men. But he is like some men. And that is terrifying. And even if it does make people uncomfortable, that’s why it needs to be talked about.

Reading through the #YesAllWomen tweets has been powerful. It’s also made my heart heavy seeing the stories and the truth in them but also seeing the backlash.

What hurts–what makes me a little ill–is that I didn’t even have the vocabulary to talk about these things for a long time both abstractly and personally. Because women in media are so rarely shown pushing back against situations that make them feel small or unsafe. And because it’s still not accepted. Even with the smart, engaged, supportive guys I’ve called friends–I feel like sometimes when I talk about things like being a woman and knowing it’s handicap in some job searches (and trust me, I did sooo many job searches in the last few years) and other areas, I feel like my guy friends might think I’m kidding or overstating.

And that’s gotten me thinking about feminism. For a while I wasn’t going to write this post because reading the #YesAllWomen tweets make everything I have to say here so redundant and it all feels so obvious. But then I started talking to my smart friend Sarah (who is also a librarian and lovely) and she wondered if maybe it wasn’t obvious all the time and I thought, maybe, that it should be said.

For a lot of years I didn’t identify as a feminist. Not because I didn’t want to but because it felt like I wasn’t allowed to–what had I done to deserve to be a feminist? Now, of course, I realize that’s the completely wrong way to look at it. The only reason I was even taking women’s studies courses in college was because I was so close to a minor. But then during my seminar in feminist theory–taught by a man who acknowledged his privilege and some of the absurdity of his teaching the seminar by admitting he never walked the street alone in fear of being raped–it all clicked. Of course I’m a feminist.

Here’s why:

  • I believe in equal rights and equal pay for equal work.
  • Because there is still a smart boys/pretty girls dichotomy and that’s stupid.
  • I’m a feminist because I want to reclaim the term “chick lit” and have it stop being seen as something less than.
  • Because women should never be made to feel small or less for how they look, what they wear, or anything they do.
  • I spent years being afraid of the old man who lived upstairs because he insisted on kissing me when I was trick or treating with other kids in the building and no one even reacted. Because I felt cheap and dirty after he did. Because of the panic I felt the one time I was alone with him in an elevator and he started to move closer while I wondered what I could do when, thankfully, the doors opened and someone else came on. Because I once walked a friend to the corner in winter with no coat rather than be alone in the lobby with him. Because when I finally realized I could take charge and not be a part of this, he was offended that I stopped speaking to him or acknowledging him.
  • I’m a feminist because I shouldn’t have to be ready with a fake name when strange men approach me on the street. I shouldn’t have to smile politely and share that fake name while they keep pace with me until I can run across the street to get away.
  • Because no one decides what I wear or how I look except me.
  • Because so many things that men think are harmless or even flattering are often terrifying.
  • I’m a feminist because I’m tired of men telling me to smile.
  • I’m tired of being called “sweetie” by men at the supermarket.
  • Because when I was in high school a coworker was promoted ahead of me despite my having more experience. Because he was a guy. (And older, but that’s a different story for a different post.)
  • Because patriarchy and misogny are complete bullshit.
  • I’m a feminist because I’m only now realizing getting hit on by the ice cream man was never a funny anecdote. (I was 15 and stopped on my way home to get ice cream for myself and my mom. The man in the truck went on to ask me where I lived so that he could drop by some time at night. I told him the complete opposite direction from where I lived. But as I headed home, I wondered if I should have taken a different route. Would he follow me?)
  • Because no one should have to be afraid of walking alone in the dark, but so many women are.
  • I’m a feminist because I’m embarrassed and outraged that my physics professor in college thought it was okay to trap me against a computer with his body while he explained a lab procedure.
  • I’m a feminist because the media is broken and still spends more time talking about how women look than about their accomplishments.
  • I’m a feminist because we still have so far to go.
  • I’m a feminist because I believe the world can be better.

I’ll leave you again by saying even if you don’t want to sift through this blog of text, take a minute and go read the #YesAllWoman tweets instead. Every woman should be reading it to know they aren’t alone and their feelings are valid. Men should be reading it to better understand. And then maybe, with the conversation started, things can start moving in a new direction.

 

 

 

 

And We Stay: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

And We Stay by Jenny HubbardNo one expected senior Paul Wagoner would walk into his high school with a gun. No one thinks he planned to kill himself and never walk out. Not even his girlfriend, Emily Beam, expected to be threatened by Paul as he confronted her in their high school library.

But all of those things did happen.

Paul is gone and with him pieces of Emily are gone too. Even before his suicide, Emily knew she would never be the same. She just didn’t know it would hurt this much.

Vacillating between guilt and anger, Emily Beam is sent to an all girls boarding school in Amherst, Massachusetts. Surrounded by history from Emily Dickinson’s life, Emily delves into poetry and her new life hoping to escape.

She has help along the way from her habitual liar roommate K. T. and a girl who likes to steal almost as much as she likes to paint. But it is only Emily herself who can forgive and leave her past behind in And We Stay (2014) by Jenny Hubbard.

And We Stay is Hubbard’s second novel. The story is set in 1995 for reasons that are never entirely clear. Despite the obvious setting (all of Emily’s poems are dated) the novel is largely timeless.

And We Stay is a very short, very fast read. In spite of that, Hubbard’s prose is imbued with substance as this slim novel tackles weighty topics ranging from feminism to processing loss and grief.

Written in the third person, present tense this story is often very distancing. Emily Beam is at a remove from readers, however it’s easy to think she prefers it that way. Flashbacks to Emily’s relationship with Paul, the shooting, and other key moments are interspersed throughout the main narrative of Emily’s first two months at the boarding school.

Each chapter ends with one of Emily’s poems which also further develop the story. Emily Dickinson also features heavily as a character of sorts–her poems are used throughout the story and a somewhat improbable plot thread at the end of the novel revolves around Dickinson’s family home in Amherst.

It’s rare to find books that focus so heavily and so well on girls. And We Stay is one of those books. Emily Beam is a prickly, sad, and surprisingly real heroine. Her observations throughout the story are caustic and insightful in a way heroines rarely get to be in most novels. Hubbard’s portrayal of Emily’s relationships with her new friends and her French teacher are beautifully handled and shockingly real.

Although the pacing was slow and a little strange (with a jarring plot thread late in the story), somehow it all works. The plot develops organically and the included poetry feels seamless. And We Stay is a lovely, thoughtful blend of poetry, feminism and fiction about a girl finding her voice.

Possible Pairings: The Vanishing Season by Jodi Lynn Anderson, Hate List by Jennifer Brown, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart, Falling Through Darkness by Carolyn MacCullough, Mostly Good Girls by Leila Sales,  Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia by Jenny Torres Sanchez, The Beautiful Between by Alyssa B. Sheinmel, Give a Boy a Gun by Todd Strasser, Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein, Some Things That Stay by Sarah Willis

The Impossible Knife of Memory: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse AndersonHayley and her father Andy have been on the road for the past five years. Sometimes riding in Andy’s rig. Sometimes laying low while Andy tries to hold down a job and Hayley does her version of homeschooling. But then everything stopped and Hayley has been moved back into a life she doesn’t want in a childhood home she refuses to remember.

Being home gives Hayley a chance at a normal life with friends and maybe even a boyfriend. Unfortunately the more the Hayley lets down her guard and allows herself to imagine a future, instead of living day-to-day, the more obvious it is that Andy is still haunted by memories of all the demons and friends he left behind after his last tour over seas. With monstrous memories looming for both of them, Hayley begins to wonder if having a normal life is something she and her father are even capable of in The Impossible Knife of Memory (2014) by Laurie Halse Anderson.

Hayley is an unreliable who lies both to the reader and herself as pieces of her past unfold in memories that cut like knives and unwanted visitors from her past. Slowly, with flashback-like memories from both Hayley and her father, the story of how they returned home unfolds. At the same time, Anderson manages to ground this book in the present with a fledgling romance and a grocery list of other problems that, in the hands of a less skilled writer, would feel trite as the perfect facades of Hayley’s friends also fall apart.

The Impossible Knife of Memory is an interesting book. But it’s also an incredibly difficult read at times. My mother was very sick last year and it took a toll on both of us–so much so that, as I read this book, I saw much more of myself in Hayley than I would have liked. That said, Anderson’s writing is excellent and returns here to the quality found in Speak with the same surprises and another fresh, surprising narrator. Although Andy is deeply troubled it was also nice to see a parental figure in a book with genuine affection for his daughter and interest in her well-being–even if it is mostly mired in the hardships that come with dealing with his own psychological traumas.

On the outset The Impossible Knife of Memory sounds like an issue book with its focus on Hayley’s father’s PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Anderson, however, brings her usual skill to this topic offering a well-rounded story that encompasses more than this one timely topic. I probably won’t re-read this book because of the personal slant that made it hard to read. I am actually painfully certain I don’t even want a copy in the house. That said, The Impossible Knife of Memory is an important book that is never heavy-handed or obnoxious. Instead Anderson offers an honest, unflinching portrayal of one family’s difficulties with PTSD as well as the promise of not just a way through but also even a chance at a happy ending.

Possible Pairings: If I Stay by Gayle Forman, The Midnight Dress by Karen Foxlee, Paper Towns by John Green, The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl by Barry Lyga, Damaged by Amy Reed, The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider, Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Linktastic!: Stories and Memories and Feminism (1/27/14) Edition

More links! More feminism! Also stories and memories and baby names!