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a travelling circus

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My review of  Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti by Genevieve Valentine is up at Worlds Without End Blog as a feature of the 2013 Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge. It is one of my more Reader Response posts where I really like the novel (and the more I think about it the more I do) but it was not without rough beginnings.

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Do head over to WWE, and reply there. They forward me the comments. I would love your thoughts if you’ve read it. The “review” is actually spoiler-free so if you haven’t read Mechanique feedback is good, too.

Mechanique is a tale and most certainly fantastical, so the read also fits nicely into Carl’s Once Upon a Time Challenge VII.

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"review" · concenter · fiction · mystery · recommend · sci-fi/fantasy · series · young adult lit

{book} the friday society

friday society coverThe Friday Society by Adrienne Kress

Dial Books, 2012.

Hardcover, 437 pages. teen fiction. {owned}

An action-packed tale of gowns, guys, guns–and the heroines who use them all

Set in turn of the century London, The Friday Society follows the stories of three very intelligent and talented young women, all of whom are assistants to powerful men: Cora, lab assistant; Michiko, Japanese fight assistant; and Nellie, magician’s assistant. The three young women’s lives become inexorably intertwined after a chance meeting at a ball that ends with the discovery of a murdered mystery man.

It’s up to these three, in their own charming but bold way, to solve the murder–and the crimes they believe may be connected to it–without calling too much attention to themselves.

Set in the past but with a modern irreverent flare, this Steampunk whodunit introduces three unforgettable and very ladylike–well, relatively ladylike–heroines poised for more dangerous adventures.—publisher’s comments.

That “modern irreverent flare” is the thing that seems to be snagging people’s attention with this read, and I can’t say I was immune. Of the few things anachronism truly has a hard time forgiving: playing with the language is one, so your long sword is made of pvc pipe, but none shall be referred to as “hot.” It’s just too startling.

confession: I am not a Jane Austen fanatic—I like her well enough, can appreciate her and all that, and Emma is hilarious fun. I know that as a female English Major in Literature I am supposed to have read every volume at least three times and swoon at the mention of Mr. Darcy. My reading of Wuthering Heights could be viewed as disrespectful at best. This does not make me immune to a love of the historical period or even ignorant for that matter, but maybe what it does make me is sensitive to the idea that not everyone does take to it; that perhaps the time frame harbors a language and culture that could seem impenetrable to potential lovers of Steampunk—a subgenre which necessarily must reside then and there historically, at least until more envision it further along the timeline.

I was reading a blog post the other day where a mother was trying to find fantasy books that might appeal to a daughter that only likes ‘realist’ fiction—to broaden her genre horizons and share her own love for fantasy. Well, The Friday Society is “contemporary chick lit” in steampunk clothing. A bridgework. And Kress does not approach the genre without credential, so if you worry that she is incapable there is a lovely anthology of short stories (Corsets and Clockwork) in which Kress’ is one of the best. Kress is being deliberate here and I find this bold move fascinating.

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{Adrienne Kress. Photo: Tanja Tiziana}

As much as the modern language should have turned me off of the read, I liked The Friday Society. It was light and fun, and I enjoy Kress’ style. I like the feminist inclusions. Cora Bell is remarkable to me because Kress has built in recognizable vulnerabilities with which to commiserate and creates an opportunity to show some self-determination, e.g. Andrew and the kissing and the effort or lack thereof to overcome his distraction. Some young female leads seem immune to that sort of foolishness and I liked this lead for having hormones and not necessitating deep emotional attachment—call me old fashioned that way.

in which I elaborate: We have a strong female protagonist who kisses a young man who is not an actual love interest. She does not end up with him. Turns out that the attraction is not the first sign that they were fated and the make-out sessions (a term used, 256) do not confirm ours suspicions of such. Cora is physically attracted but unsure that she even likes/respects Andrew. She kisses him back because she likes it, and pursues further kisses for the same reason. What does the Cora/Andrew spin tell us? One: Girls experience sexual feelings/response/pleasure, too—even to distracted and foolish extents. Two: just because she likes kissing and is attracted to a male she does not “love” does not make her a loose woman, but rather it may actually be possible if not normal to be sexually attracted to someone not “loved.” Three: just because she wants and enjoys does not render her incapable of applying her intelligence to the situation; which, after validation of the first two points, is awesome to see played out. You are neither a slut nor a freak, but you should be wise. [read 256-8.]

Accusations of being a “tease” are thrown around regarding Cora, but more often with the gorgeous and gregarious Nellie. Nellie who is, like the other two, in the throes of deciding who she is and whom she envisions herself becoming. What responsibility can and should she take for happening to be born physically beautiful?

confession: I flinch at the use of the word “squee.” And Lady Sparkle? I, like Cora, cringed, but Nellie is a dynamic and a personality to be missed. I like Nellie as much as Cora. She seemed ridiculous to me at times, but between her candor and the parrot Scheherazade I was won over. But not completely, not yet; which may have more to do with those moments where I just did not feel “girly” enough. Some women’s fiction alienates me in the same way.

Few of the characters are to be missed, really. Kress has a way with villains (Alex and the Ironic Gentleman is home to some of my favorite villains ever). The non-villainous Raheem and his possibilities have me curious, though I was experiencing a dreadful surfacing notion that I was in for a Charlie’s Angels twist. Fortunately Kress resists the urge to be normal and thus predictable (and I hope this continues). One point of resistance is Michiko. Michiko is not a token character, but one who could and should be an available historical figure to explore in parallel to the other two. She is one of three and Kress develops each of the three along their own paths (in alternating, 1st person, narrative sections), using “happenstance” to intertwine and affect each other until the most natural conclusion could be met.

“Go home, Michiko.” How she wanted to. She missed Japan—the countryside, the food. Understanding what the hell people were saying. (93)

Michiko understands very little English and comes from a very different culture. She carries the easiest explanation for physical bad-assery, but few authors would be this daring. Cora and Nellie click. Michiko takes some work.  It does take time for the three to work together, but Michiko is the more solitary line of the three. She is held most dramatically in in relationship to the others by this sense of fate, paths crossing in various and frequent inventions, all surrounding crimes being perpetrated in their vicinity.

“We’ve already been pursuing this, each of us, in our own way. And somehow we always manage to help each other out. It’s fate. It…it has to mean something. Everything is connected. Right?” She turned to Michiko, who nodded, but it wasn’t clear if she was agreeing with Cora or just humoring her. Nellie still didn’t look convinced. Cora sighed and sat down at the foot of the bed. “Haven’t you always wanted to just do something yourself?” she asked, her voice softer. “To make a real difference? Not for anyone else. Not an assignment or a task. Something that you made the decision to do?” (353)

The Friday Society is an excellent read for a young woman, especially perhaps the ones who take themselves too seriously literarily. Kress infuses a lot of personality and concentrates on building her characters. She has a great sense of humor. At times the crime-story seems frustratingly secondary–probably because it is. I found it a bit ridiculous at times and I acknowledge that that has to do with my aging, but I found the earnestness of it appealing. I’m looking forward to seeing what Kress does with this series.

recommendations: I mentioned young ladies, but young gentleman could do with reading these sort of heroines, too. for those looking for an accessible steampunk or science fiction or historical fiction (Kress is good with tech language as well as detailing costuming, place and normalities without breaking pace).

an author interview by InkyGirl regarding this book.

a Sci-Fi Experience 2013 qualifier

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"review" · fiction · Lit · recommend · Tales

the boy with the cuckoo-clock heart

The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart by Mathias Malzieu

translated from French by Sarah Ardizzone

Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.

Hardcover, 172 pages.

Ages: Adults

I checked this out from the library based on its premise. I had not seen the cover everyone rightfully raves about (see below).

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FIRSTLY: don’t touch the hands of your cuckoo-clock heart. SECONDLY: master your anger. THIRDLY: never, ever fall in love. For if you do, the hour hand will poke through your skin, your bones will shatter, and your heart will break once more.

Edinburgh, 1874. Born with a frozen heart, Jack is near death when his mother abandons him to the care of Dr. Madeleine—witch doctor, midwife, protector of orphans—who saves Jack by placing a cuckoo clock in his chest. And it is in her orphanage that Jack grows up among tear-filled flasks, eggs containing memories, and a man with a musical spine.

As Jack gets older, Dr. Madeleine warns him that his heart is too fragile for strong emotions: he must never, ever fall in love. And, of course, this is exactly what he does: on his tenth birthday and with head-over-heels abandon. The object of his ardor is Miss Acacia—a bespectacled young street performer with a soul-stirring voice. But now Jack’s life is doubly at risk—his heart is in danger and so is his safety after he injures the school bully in a fight for the affections of the beautiful singer.

Now begins a journey of escape and pursuit, from Edinburgh to Paris to Miss Acacia’s home in Andalusia. Mathias Malzieu’s The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart is a fantastical, wildly inventive tale of love and heartbreak—by turns poignant and funny—in which Jack finally learns the great joys, and ultimately the greater costs, of owning a fully formed heart. ~publisher’s comments.

Mathias Malzieu’s The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart is a lovely dark tale about hearts that won’t let go.

I can say I enjoyed the read. I can’t say I know yet what to do with it.

Edinburgh and its steep streets are being transformed. Fountains metamorphose, one by one, into bouquets of ice. The old river, usually so serious, is disguised as an icing sugar lake that stretches all the way to the sea.  The din of the surf rings out like the sound of windows smashing. Miraculously, the hoarfrost stitches sequins on to cats’ bodyies. The trees stretch their arms, like fat fairies in white nightshirts yawning at the moon, as they watch the carriages sliding over the cobblestone ice rink. It is so cold that birds freeze in midflight before crashing to the ground. The noise as they drop out of the sky is uncannily soft for a corpse.

This is the coldest day on earth. And I’m getting ready to be born. (3-4)

Malzieu has a way with images and that alone is worth the read. The fantastical woven amidst the grit of realism is something I love in a story; Malzieu firmly sets the reader into wonderful possibility and painful familiarity. A boy with a cuckoo-clock grafted into his chest, echoing/prompting his heartbeat and young/first love.

The fairy tale aspect to the novel is convenient. It allows for the strange to find new expression in timeless emotions/conditions. The cuckoo-clock works and the way in which Malzieu carries it all off is astounding.

the narrative…The narrative is a bit tricky. The narrator is Jack, the boy with cuckoo-clock heart, and yet the tense is not in the past; which is jarring when an infant remembers and uses impossible similes. And at one point he shifts to address Madeleine directly.  By the end you wonder to whom Jack is speaking and why the story is being told (even as it isn’t exactly being told). Much of the story is dominated by Jack’s obsession with Miss Acacia, but this central focus provides a parallel for other characters’ obsessions. It also serves as a distraction. The story is as much if not more about Jack and Madeleine, than Jack and anyone else.

Another aspect of the narrative is in the first person’s singular perspective. Flaws in Miss Acacia that Jack observes is quickly blanketed with layers of adoration, re-positioning her back into saintly light. He is a boy deeply in love and it becomes as if his heart has been grafted onto hers; a strange and awkward appendage; and image that makes all too much sense. The singular perspective also allows for the reader to be jarred as Jack is when a revelation finds us near the end of the novel.

characters…I loved the idea of a mad midwife prosthetic engineer. The 19th century Dr. Madeleine alone should excite Steampunk readers. Then Malzieu would add George Méliès as a character; which is an interesting choice: a personage who fits well into the story, a figure well-suited to befriend and advise Jack.  He makes for a brilliant male counterpart to Madeleine, and father-type to Jack. A man that dreams as grandly as Jack, and who has loved as grandly.

As love stories go, Miss Acacia, however lovely to laugh scornfully at upon occasion, was a figure I can only imagine understanding. I think Jack’s obsession may speak more clearly to someone other. But I did linger over moments of Jack’s emoting that was too prettily put to ignore. The way he speaks about her at times is painfully beautiful, which makes any rejection harder to bear. The trajectory of their story is not for happy endings, you hope, and yet not. And it may well have a happy ending; as Méliès ending makes room for hope.

The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart creates and bears plenty of bumps and bruises along the way. It has adult sensibilities which remind the reader that even as the narrator may be ten as he is experiencing something, his consciousness really must be that much older; a consciousness that is intent on connecting with an adult audience. The perceptions become easier to believe as he ages. The story has a fascinating quality to it, primarily held in the images Malzieu has wrought; this forgives the jostling shifts and turns in the overall telling. The crafting of The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart is a bit rough and raw, a bit crooked, but the real heart of it is good and worth the while.

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Check out these wonderful write-ups:

Irena’s review at This Miss Loves to Read

and Darren’s review at Bart’s Bookshelf.

"review" · fiction · juvenile lit · recommend · sci-fi/fantasy · series

where the beasties are

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

Illustrated by Keith Thompson

Simon Pulse (Simon&Schuster), 2009.

440 pages.

Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan was like Melina Marchetta’s Jellicoe Road; the blogosphere undisputedly recommended this read. It is said if you are interested in SteamPunk read this novel. So like Jellicoe Road, I was actually quite eager to read this one, and waited a long while for my turn to come up on the Library Hold system. Was I disappointed? …

Leviathan is writing an alternate historical take on WWI. Here are the Publisher’s Comments:

It is the cusp of World War I, and all the European powers are arming up. The Austro-Hungarians and Germans have their Clankers, steam-driven iron machines loaded with guns and ammunition. The British Darwinists employ fabricated animals as their weaponry. Their Leviathan is a whale airship, and the most masterful beast in the British fleet.

Aleksandar Ferdinand, prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, is on the run. His own people have turned on him. His title is worthless. All he has is a battle-torn Stormwalker and a loyal crew of men.

Deryn Sharp is a commoner, a girl disguised as a boy in the British Air Service. She’s a brilliant airman. But her secret is in constant danger of being discovered.

With the Great War brewing, Alek’s and Deryn’s paths cross in the most unexpected way…taking them both aboard the Leviathan on a fantastical, around-the-world adventure. One that will change both their lives forever.

The last part, the “taking them both aboard the Leviathan on a fantastical, around-the-world adventure. One that will change both their lives forever” part, alludes to the fact that Leviathan is just book one in a series. Yes, there is my ‘spoiler’ for those few others who have not read this book.  They don’t get around the world by novel’s end.

Where some might say that Leviathan could stand alone, I couldn’t. Though the ending has no hold-your-breath while making paper-chains to countdown the release of the sequel, it does leave one hanging. The relentless momentum of the story slides you to a stop and you say “aren’t things just really beginning here?” The ease in which one finds conclusive material (answers to questions) is debatable…as in, please comment with some resolved material–thanks. [and…should first books in series have to have some knots tied off? or can they be unapologetically open-ended?)

What is begun in Westerfeld’s Leviathan is a setting of the stage. Who is Deryn and Alek and how do they get to where they do in order to cross paths? What does the world look like, and what events precipitate current circumstances? A language is created, and creatures and machines are imagined. There are hints of political intrigue, as well as the scientific sort.

The setting is the focus of the narrative and the actors only appear to serve as stage hands. Westerfeld draws the reader into the creation of this alternate world, familiar enough yet utterly fantastic. The scope of his landscape and its inhabitants is enormous. In the romance of the creation and the fun of illustrating this imagined world and its living, breathing, Darwinian, Machinic warring history, the human characters become are roughly hewn chess pieces, cast devices. I am not saying there is no characterization I am merely suggesting that they take a back seat to the workings of the “beasties” and the machines. The characters are the voice-overs, the camera lenses to the actions sequences and interactions between the Darwinist-world and the Clanker-realm. This is not necessarily a criticism; especially if one is in it for a well-imagined world.

As for the characters…

I cannot resist a storyline with a girl trying to successfully disguise her as a boy. Ah, but is “her secret is in constant danger of being discovered?” I feel very little of the suspense.  Her danger is not “constant.” First, we are reassured by Deryn’s brother of her passable appearance with: “It’s just lucky you have no diddies to speak of” (22). Nothing to notice when strapping a harness across her chest for an “air sense” test (33). Next comes the “Oh, by the way, her disguise as a boy is coming along fine” update when we have a breather.  “Her diddies weren’t even the tricky part” (102)… shall I go on with the paragraph and the next three? “Hiding her body was easy….It was her brain she’d had to shift.” Capturing the mentality of a boy of certain age (or any age) is “exhausting.” There a few specifics that warrant a smile, and understanding of her challenge. But Deryn seems to fall in pretty easily because we are back to the workings of Leviathan’s greater world. It also doesn’t hurt that fifteen year-old Deryn feels no physical attraction to any of the hundreds of males on the ship. Conflict only arises in this area until after page 383. I hope this wasn’t a spoiler. Things are sure to be very complicated in this way in book two, no worries. Maybe because I am a grown-up and needing to remind myself that this a 12-13 year-old’s read, but I couldn’t help but wonder about menstrual cycles and figuring all that out.  Regardless, I can have confidence that Deryn/Dylan figured it out. Deryn can do anything—which is my only big character complaint.

Deryn/Dylan has all these fantastic, heart-thumping adventures, but I don’t know how anyone can worry? Everything works out—better than all right. Her annoyances merely place her in the center of the action and intrigue; the action and intrigue necessary to carry the plot forward. Westerfeld gives explanation for Deryn’s gifts of “air sense” and airship related intellect. She was trained from an early age by her father. She must be brave and decisive to take on such a perilous role as a boy in the British Air Service. She is also resourceful, drawing from her book-knowledge and desire for detail. She listens in lectures and makes sketches and notes of all sorts of things. Page 383 introduces the first hiccup, she finds a boy attractive. Another hiccup to follow is in the keeping a secret of his (422), but already her mind is considering a solution to that one (427).

The only convincing fearful moment of “Oh, dear, discovery?!” (out of 2) is with the extremely clever Dr. Barlow (194-5); who is also instrumental in the suspense of a “will Deryn reveal herself?” scene (428).

Alek is our other protagonist, and on alternate chapters we get to hang out with him. Alek is also fifteen, but he comes across more sheltered, and he is fairly inept at deception. Really, his inability to finesse a situation or just stay invisible causes all sorts of trouble for him and his companion. But he is so damned sincere. The enormity of his situation has few ready solutions. Where the world appears to be at Deryn’s mercy, Alek is at the mercy of the world. His position of privilege and politic cripples him, holds him back, ensnares him. He would be endearing.

Even after Alek and Deryn meet you are still given their alternating point-of-views. The alternating helps build the world of the Darwinist-Britain and the Clanker-Austria-Hungary. Their perspectives hold to their nationalist way of thinking about natural science and engineering. As they begin to cooperate, so do the ideas they each favor. They find peace and progress through working together. If the point of the book is to set a stage and get Deryn and Alek into some sort of workable relationship, then the story is a success. The backdrop is provided–Deryn and Alek keep pace and overcome some sore differences through their compassionate and reasonable resolves. Dr. Barlow makes for an interesting guidance counselor.

The female characters appear the most powerful figures in Leviathan. Dr. Nora Barlow is observant, clever, determined, and persuasive. I already mentioned Deryn, top-of-her-class, ambitious. Even Alek’s mother is seen as a powerful and persuasive, world-altering force. It is hard to say which gender the book favors but I found the Archduke, Volger, and Alek the most palatable in comparison. Perhaps it is due to how we learn about them; the revelations through their interactions that they have each other’s loyalty and protection. I would have to think further about this. The gender roles and expectations…I would think the series read first would be the most illuminating.

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Westerfeld is able to move through Time very easily, leaving you with Alek here and upon returning to him, Westerfeld catches you up to him there. This movement appears effortless. [I am terrible with this in my own efforts at writing so I am considering how this is done.] He summarizes in clean linear sequences/sentences. [I need to be less circular.]

The author also writes action-sequences well. Westerfeld takes time with the setting and the positioning of character and machinery (or beasties) while keeping the tension in the forefront of the reader’s mind by making the sets and placements with quick, incisive direction. There is really no lyricism; few similes or metaphors (if any, now that I think about it). This is tricky for me considering my last two reads (Frances Hardinge’s The Lost Conspiracy and Marchetta’s Jellicoe Road). Needless to say, many will find Leviathan a pleasure to read.

Westerfeld is using words he introduces with plenty of context and you can find it easier to follow his lexicon as you go along. He also works to illustrate a picture of his machines and beasties while still integrating their descriptions into the action. I get the feeling Westerfeld could make anything potentially academic interesting for the most avid Jerry Bruckheimer fans. Just the same, work is put into some detailing on how things appear and function.

In talking about Leviathan one must mention the illustrator Keith Thompson. Where Westerfeld works with words to illustrate this alternate WWI world, Thompson provides the visual aids. Thompson’s work is incredible. And there is no skimping on his contributions; no picture here or eventually there.

Thompson’s illustrations are as active and propelling as the pace Westerfeld keeps. They are also illuminating. I especially appreciate his drawings of the airship, the Leviathan. I don’t think that Westerfeld fails the reader with his depictions, but Thompson’s rendering adds a favorable sense of clarity.  I really enjoyed the picture of Deryn and Alek on page 274. Deryn (as Dylan) looks taller, more powerful, and in control next to the smaller, head covered, distress-browed looking Alek. Indeed, Deryn looks the more masculine of the two. What does Alek observe of Dylan? That Dylan is more the boy, more the soldier than he.

When I think about being the appropriate age of Leviathan’s audience, I could not be too disappointed. I am going to experiment by having the daughter read it in the near future. The read is highly accessible. Outside of the language of the characters and their jargon, there are no challenging vocabulary words. I think the read is one to be enjoyed by boy or girl; but I can see the draw for the boy-reader.

I’ve yet to read enough SteamPunk to judge this book by their standards, but a sinister sense that darkens the edges appears to missing. Perhaps that is a misperception of the subculture on my part. Also, I am not 12-13-ish; I felt quite safe and didn’t hear any atmospheric music to accompany the final scenes and that last illustration. For the younger crowd, Leviathan looks to be a good first dip into the increasingly popular genre.

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I read Philp Reeve’s Mortal Engines (book one of the Hungry City Chronicles) a couple of months ago. I think Leviathan readers would enjoy this read as well; for the science fiction aspect. Reeve does not have an illustrator, but he crafts envision-able depictions of his creations.

The film Steamboy (2004) directed by Katsuhiro Ôtomo, written by Ôtomo  and Sadayuki Murai, will be of interest to Leviathan’s readership (young and older).

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A few links to reviews. Suey and Bart have links to reviews at the end of their posts that I also enjoyed, so please look at those. Also Fyrefly’s Book Blog has a nice reviewing format and is a good one; I wouldn’t want you to miss that one for sake of time.

Suey at It’s All About Books

Bart’s Bookshelf

Fyrefly’s Book Blog

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the Keith Thompson drawings included are: 1- “Addressing the Applicants” (29); 2- “Ascending” (35); 3- “Stealing Away” (9)