Book Review: The Queen of the Love Triangles, or Clockwork Prince by Cassandra Clare

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I checked my Goodreads account for verification, and my instincts were right that I've had Clockwork Prince by Cassandra Clare on my "to-read" shelf since the cover debuted back in September.  I've been teetering on a razor's edge since then in anticipation, since I am head over heels in love with the Infernal Devices series (I love it much more than Mortal Instruments, but more on that later).

My December 2nd (my half-birthday, FYI) was characterized by my driving home, leaping out of the car before it came to a full stop, grabbing the Amazon box insouciantly leaning against the door with its smile/arrow, and racing inside for a full-fledged cardboard frenzy.  My husband looked on indulgently, wisely not trying to talk to me during this episode, only to perk up as I was squealing at the cover (it is even more AWESOME in person than what you see on screen).  His response was along the lines of "Wait, isn't that the next one in that series?  When do I get to read...." *voice fading as I run upstairs to hide book from him*.  Sorry, sweetheart.  Librarians first.

I decided to reread Clockwork Angel first, since I remembered that, as with all Cassandra Clare novels, it was an intricately plotted work with a decent amount of characters (nothing a reader can't handle) and lots of Victorian England references.  I wanted it all fresh in my mind for when I tackled the next book in the series.

It was a good thing I did (husband is re-reading it as we speak in preparation for Clockwork Prince).  Not only did I enjoy it tremendously, but it reminded me how much I liked and admired Tessa as a protagonist who is trying to find out - literally - who and what she is.  Kidnapped in a nefarious plan involving her brother who has moved from New York to London ahead of her, Tessa finds herself in the custody of two horrifying women and forced to regularly shape-shift, a talent she didn't know she possessed.

Saved by Shadowhunters, Tessa is brought to their home, known as the London Institute, quickly becoming a part of their lives because she is a Downworlder, or supernatural creature, although what kind of Downworlder no one really knows.  At first she is kept with them out of kindness and the fact that she obviously holds the key to understanding a potential threat, but relationships begin to form.  While searching for her missing brother, Nathaniel, she finds herself having feelings of friendship toward the gentle and handsome James Carstairs while his best friend William Herondale stirs up more tumultuous emotions.  Diving deep into the parts of London where the occult overlaps the mundane world, Tessa is faced with the forbidding knowledge that someone knows more about her than she does about herself - and that they want her at any price.

In Clockwork Prince, Tessa is still a hot property, pursued by the "Magister" who continues to develop frightening clockwork automatons to serve his evil intentions.  Her brother continues to be at large and seems to have an insider from the Institute working with him.  Will is possessed by the desperate need to push Tessa away while secretly enlisting the help of warlock Magnus Bane (who is a fabulous character that only gets better with a better acquaintance) to determine the origins of his "curse." Will's family situation is revealed with startling results, but his alienation of Tessa has unforseen consequences as she and Jem (James) become closer, igniting feelings in Tessa which begin to compete with her turbulent feelings for Will.  Political machinations in the Shadowhunter world add dimension and layers to a fabulous story. 

Tessa vs. Clary.  I think a big reason I love Tessa as a protagonist (versus Clary who really gets on my nerves - a lot, see mini-rant below*) is not only due to her love of literature and poetry, a love she shares with Will, but the fact that she wants to find answers to her questions - questions about herself, her family, about Jem's addiction and Will's family problems, about what the Magister is really up to and about what the Shadowhunter world is doing to the people she cares about at the Institute.  Tessa is curious, in the best possible way because she wants to use her knowledge to help the people she cares about.  She makes Clary seem like an intellectual lightweight.  I'd love to see a Clary/Tessa cage match.  Clary might be a Shadowhunter, but Tessa has real grit and the shape-changing thing.

It's Gaslight not Steampunk.  Here's an interesting tidbit.  The unbelievably talented Meljean Brook, author of The Iron Duke (a favorite steampunk reread of mine) and Heart of Steel as well as some great novellas, has an equally as arresting blog and she published the following image which blew my mindIn past blog posts, I had categorized the Infernal Devices series as steampunk because of the clockwork automatons.  Was I wrong!  It turns out that steampunk with acknowledged supernatural elements (like the vampires, werewolves, and warlocks of Clare's Shadowhunter world) make the book fall into the gaslight genre.  I love this name (it sounds so much more romantic, doesn't it?) and I would say that with my love of paranormal, I would probably rank my love of gaslight above my love of steampunk

Queen of Love Triangles...and Love Scenes.  I honestly wish that Clare wrote adult books because her ability to write love scenes that sizzle is BAR NONE.  Clare even says, "All my books are, in some sense or another, love stories. And complicated, passionate, maybe-it-will-work-out-maybe-it-won't romance is my favorite kind." I read plenty of adult romance and the ability to truly capture yearning and sexual tension is actually very hard to do.  Passion, yes.  The physicality of who is touching what when, you bet - plenty of authors do a terrific job of doing just that.  But yearning, aching, heart-stopping, breath-stealing yearning is very rare and extremely special. 

A big piece of why she is so good at this is her concept of who romantic characters should be.
There is little sexier than watching someone excel at something they do extraordinarily well — the difference between a bad boy is that they know they do it really well and that it’s turning you on; the good boys don’t. And there should be a dash of vulnerability. Your boy doesn’t have to be tormented but the girl or boy who he loves has to be able to get under his skin and pierce that armor, or it’s no fun. (Cassandra Clare from Malinda Lo's interview with her.)
Combine this piece with her propensity for compelling gay/bi characters and Clare becomes an author who understands love and passion in all its forms.  I adored Magnus Bane in the Mortal Instruments series (its wonderful to watch the progression of his relationship with Alec and his patient understanding waiting for Alec to come out to his parents has my total devotion) and the friendship and assistance he offers to Will in this series continues to develop his complex character.

*Mini-rant* After rereading the first three of the Mortal Instruments series in preparation for reading the fourth book, City of Fallen Angels, I had to actually put the book down and not finish it.  I want to go on record as saying I unequivocally admire Cassandra Clare and love her writing, but she does something that really bothers me as a reader.  She tortures her characters.

I'm totally serious about this.  It often feels like no one is allowed to just be happy and this makes me crazy.  I'm not saying anyone would enjoy reading about happy people, but I think it's perfectly reasonable to have characters who can actually be happy in a relationship while tumultuous, horrifying things (like armies of scary clockwork automatons after you, for example) are happening to you and the person you love.  I am not trying to infer that I don't enjoy a juicy love triangle with the best of them, but I find myself emotionally wrung out after reading them.  Mortal Instruments gave me nightmares and I ended up really getting cranky with Clary, although I know it's not her fault the poor thing isn't given a moment's peace.  I'm absolutely going to pick up the book again and read it, but now I'm annoyed that I have to be in a more patient mood to do it. *end mini-rant*

Cassandra Clare is a fantastic author who ranks high on my list of all-time fantasy/action/gaslight greats.   A wonderful bonus to those who admire her is the fact that she is also an author who regularly reflects on the writing process and her craft (in addition to feeding us terrific tidbits about upcoming books and ideas).  Her blog is one I always enjoy reading in my Google Reader as a result of this outlook.  Other great sources of information about Clare's work is her Twitter account since she posts regularly, and her Facebook page.  Pick the source of information that best fits your fandom.

There are plenty of great future books we can look forward to:

May 2012 - City of Lost Souls (Mortal Instruments series)
September 2013 - City of Heavenly Fire (last in the Mortal Instruments series) and Clockwork Princess (the last in the Infernal Devices series)

Clare has spoken of a future series, The Dark Artifices, set five years after the last Mortal Instruments book  (so around 2018) which would be set in the Los Angeles Institute (Clare lived in L.A. when she was an entertainment writer).  Since Mortal Instruments characters would presumably be in their twenties, she has said she could envision them doing cameo appearances so we can see how they are doing. 

Suffice it to say, my Goodreads account is always going to include Clare's books on my to-read list, subsequent cardboard frenzy guaranteed. 

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Create Great Library Usage Reports from Google Calendar

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Every librarian should love data.  LOVE it.  Data is our life's blood because it allows us to keep track of what direction (intentional or unintentional) our program takes.  Not only is data beneficial for us, but is the unfortunate case that many an administrator responds better to seeing actual numbers associated with key talking points as we go over programmatic highlights.

In my library, a big piece of our data tracking is our shared Google calendar which records all our classroom usage (we have three classrooms in our space and we also sometimes schedule classes on the library floor).  We moved away from our shared Outlook calendar because we kept getting frustrated that if our computer crashed, the formatting and some of the data would be lost, which made us crazy.  As early Google adopters, Google calendar (which my fellow Upper School librarian and I were using personally) seemed like an obvious substitute.

We can see each other's personal calendar (to remember doctor's appointments, etc.) and decided that we would set up each classroom with its own calendar, largely because we can control the color coding and see usage at a glance when teachers want to set up an appointment to come to the library.

But there has always been one annoying part when it comes time to collate the data.  We have had to input the data from each class (teacher, class name, number of students, collaboration level, skills taught, laptop usage) into a Filemaker database in order to generate usage reports.  Gah!  So tedious to do, especially since we do it at the end of each semester, when we are usually exhausted.

We started off our day this morning kvetching about needing to crunch the data and wondering if there was an easy way to get the reports in Google Docs rather than using the class by class input technique.  Now, I'm sure there are plenty of librarians reading this going "duh," but in my end of trimester haze, I had the brainwave of doing a search on extracting data from Google calendar and discovered (for FREE!!!)  

It couldn't be simpler to use.  You just have your calendar/Google docs open and give GTimeReport permission to access your Google account.  You get this snazzy window (you can see all my various calendars in each different colors) and you can simply choose the time/date parameters for your report.  Here's what you get:

Give it a few seconds and POP!  It opens up Google Docs and we get the above beautiful report.  You can see how we can sort by date, time, duration, the bell, and you can even see our occasional listing of skills taught. Now that I realize how it formats the report, I think we will use the "where" field (which we can ignore since our "where" is taken care of by the calendar name) for indicating the number of students or our collaboration levels (L1 = students are in library without teacher and no joint instruction, L2 = teacher is with student but no collaborative instruction is taking place, and L3 = teacher and librarian instruct students together and assess lesson's efficacy throughout project).

Anything that gives quick and easy (and FREE!!!) data is a boon to any librarian's heart and if you are already using Google calendar, then this might be a helpful addition to your repertoire.  Next up for us - enabling the appointment feature so teachers can book themselves. :-)

How to Have a Library When Your School Is Evacuated

10:51 AM 1 Comments A+ a-

Market St. Bridge between Kingston and Wilkes-Barre
I'll be honest.  I don't actually think about the fact that my school's campus is about a mile from the Susquehanna River unless I am actually driving over one of bridges.  But that is undoubtedly due to the fact that I am not a native of the Wyoming Valley, or even originally from northeast Pennsylvania.
Downtown Wilkes-Barre during the Agnes Flood of 1972

Because those natives are scarred from the many devastating floods that this area has regularly experienced.  With the campus devastation from the Agnes Flood of 1972 fresh in their mind, many of the school's senior teachers and administrators do not take the threat of the river reaching flood level lightly.  After the Agnes Flood, there was a concerted effort to bring in a massive levee system to protect towns from this economic and emotional devastation in the future.  Some of the towns, because a gigantic concrete hill would obscure the views to the river, voted to not build one, with unfortunate results.

The Wyoming Seminary campus
As the news outlets began to make predictations of the river reaching flood stage, Wyoming Seminary College Preparatory School realized that it had to evacuate our campus.  We are a boarding/day school, so while our day students were evacuating with their parents if they were in the floodplain, or just kicking back in their house, elated school was canceled if they were high and dry in the surrounding mountains, almost 200 boarders and residential faculty kicked into high gear, moving furniture and paperwork to the second floor of all buildings and packing their belongings.

It's a testimony to our community that day students immediately opened their homes to boarders, with over half of them being quickly brought into day student houses for a three to four day stay.  The rest of them (largely newer students only at school for a couple of weeks and therefore with a smaller friend network) were taken with residential faculty to the beautiful facilities of Camp Orchard Hill.  A skateboarding park, climbing tower, lake facilities, beach volleyball court and air conditioned cabins make this location a veritable paradise for evacuated teens!  Especially considering that a large percentage of the students were new to the school, the bonding that took place probably gave these kids a better start to the school year than simply being in class would have.

Another great benefit of Camp Orchard Hill's location was purely a selfish one.  It happens to be two-tenths of a mile from the house my husband and I purchased three years ago when we moved out of the boys dorm.  Commuting to work could not have been easier!

We got the text that school was closed Wednesday night and an email from the Dean of the Upper School that all on campus faculty and any off campus faculty who could make it (roads were beginning to close) should come to a meeting in our main auditorium to get further instructions on how best to help.  Buses were coming at 2:30 that day to take everyone on campus up to Camp Orchard Hill since Kingston was subject to a mandatory evacuation no later than 4 pm, with anyone lingering risking arrest.

Faculty and students were busy moving furniture and files up (all of admissions was spread around the 2nd floor library).  Since the heavy lifting was well in hand, I began to think: what were students going to do for three to four days in the middle of a camp in the country?  We weren't sure about wifi access at the time, so reading material was a necessity.  How could I create a library on the move?

Kirby Library has a great supply of board games, so naturally all those went into my car trunk, as did the library's Wii and four color-coded controllers.  I pulled about 30 popular magazines off the magazine wall - all the fashion, news, music and entertainment, sports, and a smattering of science and literary magazines (I was thinking about the faculty).  The bigger challenge was the books.  What to choose when the clock was ticking?

It felt almost like those game shows they had where contestants were given a shopping cart and told to dash through a supermarket, throwing items into a cart to achieve a certain dollar amount.

Linger and Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Impossible by Nancy Werlin
Generation Dead and Kiss of Life by Daniel Waters

Rucker Park Setup and Rikers High by Volponi
It's Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini
Snitch by Allison Van Diepen
The Book Thief by Zusak
The Uglies series by Scott Westerfeld
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
American Wife and Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld
The first five books of the Georgia Nicholson series by Louise Rennisen
Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay
Trickster's Choice and Trickster's Queen by Tamora Pierce
Fight Club and Choke by Chuck Palahniuk
The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson

Keeping Faith and The Pact by Jodi Picoult
Dairy Queen trilogy by Catherine Gilbert Murdock
Shooter, Crystal and Sunrise Over Fallujah by Walter Dean Myers
Seth Baumgartner's Love Manifesto by Eric Luper
The Wicked Lovely series by Melissa Marr
The Season by Sarah MacLean
Vegan, Virgin, Valentine by Carolyn Mackler
Misery and It by Stephen King
Lady MacBeth's Daughter and Ophelia by Lisa Klein
Sister Wife by Shelley Hrdlitschka
The Physik Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe

For someone quickly pulling books off shelves, I think I must have been aiming for a good mix that would appeal to adults (the faculty supervising the students) and the kids themselves.  In retrospect, I could kick myself for not including graphic novels since the boarding population is very international (over 20 countries are represented at Wyoming Seminary) and our Asian population in particular love manga.

I created a user "Evacuation Flood" in the software and checked out all the books to that account.  Kids were told that they could take whatever they wanted back to their cabins, they would just be responsible for returning anything to the library (which they did).  I picked up everything on the morning they headed back to campus and packed it in my trunk (unloading it on Monday morning).

There was a little lounge cabin that I spread all the materials out in (as well as bringing 72 fresh baked chocolate chip cookies from the house).  They were used and rummaged through, and I certainly saw kids laying on benches and reading library books.

While it was a minor contribution, I felt really great thinking that the library went with the students on the evacuation - I always like to say that "library isn't a place, not a state of mind" and I think I lived up to that motto. 

Throwing Down the Gauntlet...or Don't Tell Me Catholic School Girls Aren't in Rock Songs

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This morning, I was listening in the car to the Billy Joel classic, "Only the Good Die Young," and it struck me, what are the songs that have Catholic School girls in them?  There must be a decent number, because any girl (like me) who has actually been a teenager walking around in a Catholic school uniform can relate how many obscene statements men and boys make toward you.  The myth of the "wild" Catholic school girl is embedded in the American heterosexual male psyche, much to our dismay.

Because it was about music, I said something to my husband, Icarus P. Anybody, who had just written a post about all his favorite songs that are about the radio, and he had the audacity to SCOFF at me saying he couldn't think of any references to Catholic school girls besides the Billy Joel song.  I hate it when he scoffs, so I decided to do a little research to see if I was entirely deluded.  Plus, I had my reputation of a Catholic school survivor, the last four years all-girls at Immaculate Conception High School in Lodi, New Jersey, to defend.  

I suppose it's nice to know that the idea is inspirational for artists, even if we are just talking about musicians and writers of a certain film genre.  Billy Joel definitely counts as an artist who I can admire (at least for his work, I don't know him well-enough personally), and he clearly had the hots for a Catholic school girl at some point.  Take a look at some of the lyrics of "Only the Good Die Young" which came off his 1977 album, The Stranger.

Come out Virginia, don't let me wait
You Catholic girls start much too late
aw But sooner or later it comes down to fate
I might as well be the one

well, They showed you a statue, told you to pray
They built you a temple and locked you away
Aw, but they never told you the price that you pay
For things that you might have done.....

I'm guessing that the choice of "Virginia" for her name works at the syllable level as well as the symbolic one since we're all clear on what he's looking for (shame on you, Billy!).  The only aspect of the song that worries me is trying to figure out how old Virginia is.  I mean, read them yourself.

You got a nice white dress and a party on your confirmation
You got a brand new soul
mmmm, And a cross of gold
But Virginia they didn't give you quite enough information
You didn't count on me
When you were counting on your rosary
(oh woah woah)

They say there's a heaven for those who will wait
Some say it's better but I say it ain't
I'd rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints
the sinners are much more fun...

Was the confirmation recent?!  That happens in middle school.  Let's hope he's referring to a few years before his relentless courtship of poor Virginia.  I'd feel a lot more comfortable if she was at least a junior, after all.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers are another group fascinated with the sexuality of the girl in a plaid skirt.  Their song, "Catholic School Girls Rule" of the Freaky Styley album (1985) is extremely risque.  Some of the tamer lyrics (which still manage to convey the gist of the song) are:

From the cross she's raised her head
This is what the sister said
Give no love until you're wed
Live no life until you're dead

The good books says we must suppress
The good books says we must confess
But who cares what the good books says
Cause now she's taking off her dress

Is she taking off her dress?  Really Chili Peppers?  In your fantasies, possibly, but it sounds a little like you're complaining about religion thwarting your adolescent desires if you don't mind my saying so.  There is no way that I'm linking to the video - it manages to be both bad and obscene simultaneously and no one needs that mental image.

Frank Zappa, also not known for his highbrow culture or finesse although respected by many as a musician, published his Catholic school girl tribute "Catholic Girls" on his compilation album, You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore, Vol. 6, which is a two-disc set of live performances recorded between 1970 and 1988. Here's is the least raunchy stanza in the whole song:

In a little white dress
Catholic girls
They never confess
Catholic girls
I got one for a cousin
I love how they go
So send me a dozen
Catholic girls
Catholic girls

I can't speak for who is in heaven, but I guarantee you that whereever Frank Zappa is, he is not accompanied by a dozen Catholic girls right now.  Let's hope he grew out of this particular fetish.

One of my favorite videos featuring a Catholic school girl (which I've always thought of as quite romantic) is the 80s power ballad, "Sister Christian," by the band Night Ranger.  Originally published on their 1984 album, Midnight Madness, the song was actually written by drummer Kelly Keagy for his sister, which is probably why it's actually lovely and not obscene.  "Sister Christian" has actually been named one of the top 100 songs of the 1980s by VH1 and it's theme about making choices when you are young is universal.  It holds up well today.

Sister Christian
Oh the time has come
And you know that you're the only one
To say O.K.
Where you going
What you looking for
You know those boys
Don't want to play no more with you
It's true

While the lyrics don't mention Catholic school girls explicitly, no one can forget the video of the Bon Jovi classic, "Runaway," from their debut album Bon Jovi released in 1984. I think the choice of having the protagonist of the song come from a Catholic school background was clearly to contrast with her present situation, namely drugs and prostitution, which is inferred by the lyrics and her nightmare dream sequence. Warning: the hair is REALLY big in this video and I am sadly not just talking about the actress/model playing the runaway.

I think it's interesting that people have commented on the fact that the school uniforms in "Sister Christian" and "Runaway" are actually authentically long, not the tarted up miniskirts (that would have gotten me a smack and instant penance from the nuns) that say "Catholic uniform" to most video producers. The Bon Jovi video still makes the actress soaking wet, for no apparent reason other than to turn her blouse see-through, so I'm not saying that it's high art, but I think it's worth noting.

A well-known video featuring Catholic school girls (although not in the lyrics) is in the early 1990s "Crazy" by Aerosmith video. One of the reasons it's so well-known is because it stars two later famous actresses, Alicia Silverstone (of Clueless and Batgirl fame) and Liv Tyler (LOTR, anyone?), who happens to be Steve Tyler's daughter (which wasn't known to the casting director when he asked her to do the video). One again, the uniform seems to be more to confirm the stereotype of wild Catholic girls, while offering contrast to their girls naughty choices along their journey. Tsk, tsk, ladies.

 While it's not necessary identified as a Catholic school, most younger people today would probably remember the famous Brittany Spears video, "...Baby, One More Time" as embodying the sex appeal of the school uniform.  With neither nuns or teachers to enforce the dress code in this video, it's hardly shocking that all the students have taken liberties with their uniforms, tying off shirts and wearing skirts waaaayyyy too high (do you know how uncomfortable that is sitting on cold chair in the winter?).  This is from 1998, but I find myself shocked at how unbelievably young Spears looks.  I want to give her a hug and a long talk about doing her homework.

With the exception of "Baby, One More Time" all of the songs and videos on this list came out during my middle school/high school/college years, so I guess it's only right I would have been a little more aware than the average person about the role Catholic school girls play in the rock scene.  It's been quite a little trip down memory lane.

Thanks, Icarus P. Anybody, and BTW, you might want to not throw down a gauntlet to your librarian wife next time. The research thing comes pretty easy, after all.  *kisses*

Victorian Deliciousnesses With a Dash of Steampunk: The Parasol Protectorate Series by Gail Carriger

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Knowing that Gail Carriger's latest novel in the Parasol Protectorate series was due out this week (Heartless), I decided to make a point of reading all her books in the month of June to gear up for the release.  I had a feeling these books were going to jibe with my recent steampunk foray and I was right.

But I ended up getting so...much...more.

I'll confess it took me a good 60 pages to get into the first book, Soulless, not because the world was so hard to understand, but because there is a distinctive rhythm to the main character's thoughts and it is her voice which predominates.

Alexia Tarabotti is a fine young Englishwoman, genteel and proper.  Unfortunately, her intelligence and her appearance (a darker complexion inherited from an Italian father combined with an, ahem, ample figure) render her decidedly unfashionable.  In a steampunk world in which mechanicals abound, Alexia's England also has a unique feature - the acceptance of supernaturals.  Vampires and werewolves (ghosts abound as well, but they are really second class citizens) are in the upper echelons of society, with carefully drawn lines around their respective boundaries according to etiquette of the time.  The individuals who become vampires and werewolves - who survive the death to become immortal - have an excess of soul and therefore have enough soul lingering after their death to inhabit their new immortal bodies.  Alexia herself is the ultra-rare preternatural, or a person born without a soul.  This makes her especially dangerous in the eyes of supernaturals bent on showing their power as her very touch makes them mortal and vulnerable to killing.

Alexia's curiosity, combined with an unfortunate and unprecedented vampire attack at a party, throws her in the path of Lord Conall Maccon, the Earl of Woolsey, a major player in Queen Victoria's government (the supernatural investigative kind) and the Alpha male of the Woolsey pack of werewolves.  They are both attracted and slightly baffled by one another, but as their case progresses, they not only uncover a conspiracy of scientists, but realize their love for one another.

The second book, Changeless, is one that caused a tremendous brohaha upon publication (it has one hell of a cliffhanger and I would have been LIVID if I had read it when it first came out).  Alexia is married to Lord Maccon and trying to find her feet in her marriage and newfound position amidst her love match.  During all this, a large part of London is affected by a baffling mystery - the supernatural creatures in it cannot go about their usual business because they have become mortal (and the ghosts have all been oddly exorcised).  It's as if Alexia's preternatural power is everywhere, but she has nothing to do with it.  When her husband has to head north to Scotland to investigate a similar situation with his former pack (who he left under difficult circumstances), Alexia hops the nearest dirigible and follows him to help.  Several murder attempts later, she does end up solving the mystery, but is given a major blow with some news that impacts her marriage to Lord Maccon.  Hence the sucky cliffhanger.

Lucky for us, the next book has been out for a while. (Thank heavens.) Blameless (The Parasol Protectorate) picks up right where Changeless left off, with Alexia's marriage in the scandal sheets.  She becomes the target of even more murder attempts than usual, which prompts her to surround herself with friends and flee to Italy where she thinks she will find the answers she needs (or at least good food).  She does find answers, but also a seriously demented version of the Knights Templar who consider her, as someone born without a soul, to be an abomination, but one they are willing to exploit to their purposes in order to harness her power.  The revelation that her father also had dealings with the Templars puts her a little closer to unraveling the mystery surrounding him, but only so far.  As Lord Maccon comes to his senses and follows her to Europe, Alexia's pragmatism and fashion sense help her see what is really going on, even if she can't necessarily fix it.

In the most recent book, Heartless, Alexia is still being hunted by vampires, visited by demented ghosts, and having to decorate a new London townhouse to survive the occasional werewolf change, all while eight months pregnant.  So vexing.  She is so distracted by having to eat and empty her bladder all the time that it's a challenge to figure out what the cryptic messages mean about the "queen" and "danger".  Add to this some disturbing behavior by a good friend and Alexia has to solve the mystery, pregnancy or no pregnancy.

The fun in the parasol protectorate series is the rompy, witty style of the writing.  It's true that Carriger occasionally gets a little bogged down in the Victorian detail, and there is the scene or plot point that could have been rendered shorter (we can say that for almost every author out there, were we honest about it), but for steampunk enthusiasts, this is a super fun series worthy of consideration.  Alexia's character and that of her husband's are well-drawn and lovable (if occasionally frustrating in their pig-headedness).  I love several of the minor characters, particularly the fabulous and independent vampire, Lord Akeldama, as well as the scientist/milliner Madame Lefoux.  It's a fascinating feature of steampunk that gay characters not only abound, but are accepted in the alternate steampunk universe without too much startled eyelash batting.  I haven't decided if it's an author connection linking modernity in machines to sexual tolerance or if, in this case, if you acknowledge vampires and werewolves and what they do in the privacy of their homes, who really cares about the gay issue?  It's a shame we can't take that philosophy to Washington to forward the cause of the gay movement.  I bet the religious right would have a much bigger problem with vampires.  MUCH bigger problem.

Author Gail Carriger (who has an extremely witty blog as part of her author website) is the pen name of Tofa Borregaard, an archeologist/anthropologist (which explains all that attention to cultural detail).  Her website has TONS of interview questions that she answers in a thorough and funny manner, so any detail about her writing would be more than answered using the resources on her website.  Readers new to the steampunk genre will find Carriger's introduction to be a good one (and her novels are excellent crossover books for librarians interested in hooking the romance or historical fiction reader into something a little more fantasy).  I was especially appreciative of her outstanding costuming resources listed - be prepared to spend a good hour noodling around these sites and thinking of your next Halloween costume!

It's safe to say that in the many steampunk books I've read, humor - really fun, playful humor - is in short supply.  Thankfully we have Gail Carriger to help us see that steampunk is not just an interesting, sexy mashup genre for the intellectual fantasy/historical fiction reader, but downright funny as well. 

From Regency to Victoriana: The Agency Series by Y. S. Lee

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Having been on my Regency binge recently, I was a little reluctant to switch to a Victorian time period.  You know, stuffy rules, supercilious morality, and the crinolines!  Don't get me started on the crinolines.

But you all know about my Steampunk fetish, and truth be told, a lot of the fun of that is the juxtaposition of all that tightlaced etiquette set against adventure.  The Agency series by Canadian author Y. S. Lee is no exception to this proven formula.  The book jacket tantalizes with a description of a poor, savvy orphan, sentenced to death at the age of 12 for theft, who is saved by women who run an astonishingly empowering school for girls.  When Mary reaches the age of 17, she confesses to being dissatisfied at the options available to her, only to have those same women smile and let her in on a secret.  They run "The Agency."

Which is, in fact, a secret agency that contracts out to the government.  The bureaucrats in charge just know it's a spy ring with a great deal of success, but the reason is simple.  The teachers at the school know that women are ignored and overlooked, so the intelligent girls they recruit to educate can masquerade as governesses and lady's companions, gathering valuable data in their wake.  Taught to defend themselves, adopt disguises, pick locks, and write in code, Mary and the other operatives end up with an arsenal that allows them to enter any situation and figure out what is going on.

In the first book, The Agency: A Spy in the House, Mary is given her first assignment as a lady's companion in a house of a wealthy merchant suspected of large scale shipping fraud.  Tunneling into the dysfunctional depths of the home's relationships takes perseverance and patience, all amid the odiferous backdrop of what became known in London as "the big stink" or the heat wave that caused the Thames to smell so horrible that it produced a succession of reforms in the treatment of sewage for the city.

Mary has difficulty getting to the bottom of her "employer's" finances, until she meets up with James Easton, a well-born engineer whose brother happens to be courting the daughter of the house.  James has heard rumors that the family finances are suspect and wants to ferret out the reality before an undesirable connection is made.  James is infuriated and fascinated by Mary, and the feeling is quite mutual, but as the mystery comes to a close, the feelings between them are left by the wayside as they both know James is moving to India for an engineering contract and won't be back for years.

The second book, The Agency: The Body in the Tower, brings us almost a year and half later in Mary's life.  She's an established and more experienced operative with a dangerous new mission.  She must live as a young boy apprentice, working at a construction site of St. Stephen's Tower, a.k.a. Big Ben where a worker has "fallen" from the tower.  The work is dangerous and forces Mary to remember her childhood when she would adopt the dress and mannerisms of a boy to avoid abuse, but she manages to push through her discomfort and peel back the layers of deceit.  A major complication arises when James Easton, back prematurely from India and suffering from acute malaria, takes on a small commission to determine the safety conditions of the site.  He recognizes Mary immediately and they are once more a team, who realize their growing feelings and the danger they pose.

A feature that pleasantly startled me was the overarching story arc regarding Mary's origins.  She is confronted in each book by an aspect of her childhood she tries to painfully deny and chooses to face that fear and delve deeper rather than ignore it.  Her courage and pluck - and her knowledge that as attracted as she is to James, there is much of her that he would consider unsuitable - makes her the intelligent yet vulnerable heroine we can all love and root for.

The writing is outstanding, made all the richer by author Lee's background (she has a Ph.D. in Victorian Literature and Culture and it shows in the details).  The first Agency book was originally an adult mystery, but when her agent mentioned that it was a great coming of age story, Lee tweaked the character ages and shaped it as just that.  Perhaps because of it's origins, the writing never talks down to the reader, having a seriousness of purpose that transmits the harsh reality of Mary's background, no matter how ladylike she behaves in the given moment.

We are lucky that there are two more books to come (thank goodness!), with the next one, The Agency: The Traitor and the Tunnel due out in 2012 for the U.S. (and August 4, 2011 for the U.K.).  I've already pre-ordered my copy from (I am NOT waiting for this sequel).  Lee also just announced the approval for a fourth book, tentatively titled Rivals in the City.  YAY!!

I've decided to not be snobby about the Victorian period, no matter how much I love Regency, particularly when I am in good hands like that of Y. S. Lee and writers like her. 

But I don't have to like crinolines.

Regency Romance for the YA Audience: Historical Romance Reader's Advisory for Teens

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I have been reading a LOT of Regency Romance recently and began wondering about the younger teen who might be interested in this type of book.  The early Stephanie Laurens romance novels, what she terms her Regencies, would be great for them (only the later Cynster, Bastion Club and Black Cobra series are sexually explicit - the early seven or eight novels are quite light and very tasteful in terms of alluding to the physical intimacy) but what else is out there?

Irish author Cora Harrison published a fun, well-researched novel, I Was Jane Austen's Best Friend, published by Delacorte Press in 2010 that would be ideal for an audience interested in romance but minus the more explicit content. Harrison took the documented knowledge that Jane Austen's cousin, Jane Cooper, attended the same boarding school and lived with the Austen family for a time, later marrying a wealthy sea captain, and created a novel that brings the Austen family to life.  Changing her name to Jenny (a nickname for Jane during the period) and making her a few years younger was a device that allowed Jenny to be a little closer to Jane, offering the reader more opportunities to see Jane as her letters and other first-hand accounts depict her as a teen.  The romance between Jenny and Captain Harrison is extremely well-done.  It's a light, sweet novel that would be a nice read for any fan of Jane.  Harrison followed it up with a UK second book (not apparently published in the US, but you can buy it used), Jane Austen Stole My Boyfriend, in which Jane and her cousin go to Bath after Jenny becomes engaged and have adventures.  I'm not a fan of how the title uses a modern colloquialism (it seems pretty flippant to me and actually more like one of the modern reinterpretations of her work, like Prom and Prejudice), so we'll see if I read it.  This one was just great on its own.

 But the real gem (and an author I plan on pursuing further) is The Season by Sarah MacLean.  Alex, Ella, and Vivi are well-born daughters of the ton and about to have their debut, an event they are approaching with some trepidation.  But fiery Alex, surrounded by her handsome older brothers, has learned to not live life by other people's rules, and when it seems like neighbor and friend Gavin, Earl of Blackmoor, is a target for a traitor, she gets involved.  Gavin takes one look at Alex's new dresses and upswept hair and realizes that his feelings are no longer brotherly, and he doesn't want Alex placing herself in danger. 

MacLean crafted a good little mystery here which provides a wonderful backdrop for her deft writing about the period and about the lives of these three girls, all of whom read as bold three-dimensional characters yet seem at home in their time period.  Her Regency chops are excellent, with lots of accuracy and appropriate language use, and there is serious heat between Gavin and Alex (which doesn't go beyond kissing and hugging for the YA audience).  Lack of more sexual intimacy aside, this book still feels like a true Regency romance, with a little less focus on the male lead than you might have in one of those books.  It would be a terrific introduction for any middle school or younger high school girl ready to enter the world of romance.

Sarah MacLean is definitely an author to watch.  I've ordered her adult Regency romances, Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake, Ten Ways to Be Adored When Landing a Lord, and Eleven Scandals to Start to Win a Duke's Heart (just published in May 2011).  Her website is FABULOUS (I have a serious pet peeve with difficult author websites, although I'm empathetic that so many obviously have to figure it out themselves) and clearly reflects her background in public relations, which she thankfully left to pursue a romance novel career.  Thank you for your personal choices, Sarah!!  She seems to be a great and witty interview based on her blog interviews (Writing and Ruminating Blog, Romance Bandits, and The Romance Dish).  (Be sure to look at her author recommendations - this is a woman who knows her romance authors and isn't afraid to share her knowledge!)

So let's not leave those young newbies to the Regency romance novel to flounder, but introduce them to the delights of the genre.  It's the start of a long, and utterly delightful, road on which they will not lack for enthusiastic company.

More Lovely Steampunk Books for the Action Enthusiast: Book Review of The Girl in the Steel Corset by Kady Cross

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Still feeling the steampunk vibe, and even more so when I caught a look at this cover - isn't it fabulous?  Welcome to The Girl in the Steel Corset by Kady Cross.

The author describes the book as a cross between X-Men and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and this action-packed yarn lives up to that billing, holding appeal to both male and female readers (although with this cover, the male reader might be a tough sell).

Our protagonist, Finley Jayne, comes from a home made up of her seamstress mother and caring bookseller stepfather.  Not wanting to be a financial burden to her family she looks for domestic work, which usually doesn't last long, because Finley has a secret.

She feels that she is two people, the first the good girl who wants to work hard (she is amazingly strong with tremendous endurance) and the second, a girl for whom anger or rage can unleash a dark side capable of doing serious damage, and it does.

When Lord Felix, the son of her employer and a recent addition to the pierced aristocrats emulating underworld king, Jack Dandy, tries to rape and beat her, Finley not only stops him but almost kills him in the process.  Fleeing the scene she literally runs right into Griffin King, the young Duke of Greystone, who himself harbors a secret (one inherited from his parents who may have provided a little inspiration for another steampunk classic, Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne).  Griffin has surrounded himself with an eclectic group of people blessed with some particular strength or genius and he realizes more quickly than Finley what is happening to her and how to help.  The fact that she is strikingly pretty and intelligent also doesn't factor into his helping her, although it might have something to do with the feelings stirring inside him.  It doesn't do it justice, but you might want to take a look at the book trailer.

I greatly enjoyed this book and applaud the author's deft but not hokey nod to the classic work The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (a story that features more prominently as the plot progresses).  As Finley becomes part of the team Griffin has assembled, not only does she find a way to use and integrate the dark part of herself to fight the evil among them, but she finds friendship and acceptance for who she is, a friendship most welcome as she discovers her family and Griffin's to have been allies for longer than either can imagine.

This novel is also deliciously steampunk, more so than a lot of other books which try and live up to the moniker.  Automatons and fascinating energy sources abound and diminutive, Irish Emily is a veritable genius with them (she is the one who makes Finley's famed corset), much to the dismay of another member of the team, the strong and conflicted Sam.  Young American cowboy Jasper seems to have a mysterious past but brings his own set of skills into play, and the antihero of Jack Dandy forms an intriguing love-triangle as his interest in Finley is all too clear, inspiring Griffin's jealousy.

Kady Cross was kind enough to give us her .5 novella, The Strange Case of Finley Jayne, available as a free download.  This prequel tells us the growing origin of Finley's conflicted self (and her desire to help and goodness) through the story of her previous domestic position prior to her story beginning in
The Girl in the Steel Corset.

Finley has disastrously left her previous domestic position after punching the lights out of a cruel governess and finds herself back at home with no reference.  She is shocked when an aristocratic lady lands on her doorstep wanting to hire Finley as a companion to her daughter, based on hearing that previous account of her work.  The Lady's daughter is recently engaged to a much older man and there are suspicions as to his intentions.  Very well-grounded suspicions.

This time Mary Shelley's Frankenstein provides the comparison and is done in as equally as deft a manner as the previous book.  The reader is left with a better impression of what Finley was like prior to her dark side asserting itself even more and the near-misses of her possible encounters with Griffin are a nice touch.  A really well done novella!

It's nice to note that author Kady Cross is actually a pseudonym for successful romance novelist Kathryn Smith, although librarians can be assured that the content of this novel (soon to be series since it's entitled The Steampunk Chronicles) is totally appropriate for even younger YA audiences but has enough punch and depth to entertain adult steampunk readers.  I was bound to enjoy the writing of someone who lists Richelle Mead, Melissa Marr and Meg Cabot as some of her favorite YA writers, and I am really appreciative that Cross/Smith has done a great job collating terrific steampunk links on her Kady Cross website.

I've added her to my Google Reader as I think the incarnation of Kady Cross will be a good author to watch.  I know I can't wait for the next book in the series, particularly given the intriguing situation she set up at the end of The Girl in a Steel Corset!