YA Historical Fiction: Gail Carriger’s Finishing School

I’m so happy to be settled into summer.  My husband is canning, the garden is starting to produce, and a few eggs have made it in from the chicken coop.  We have a hen who seems to be broody and struggling and she has me worried, and the rooster is being a total jerk, so she is in the pop up run that I bought to be able to keep the new batch of chicks outside safely during the day.

What to do about my son’s schooling in the fall is heavy on my mind. I’d love him to be able to go back, but I can work from home and even though NY is doing awesome, I think I want to keep him with me during the day until this has passed.   Too many unknowns with this virus.  Both my husband and I have been very sick other years from what he has brought home, and I’d rather skip the weeks of exhaustion.  The emotional ups and downs of this has been enough, I don’t want to risk becoming physically ill.

I’m lucky to be able to even have the choice.

But on to books!  Last summer I spent a glorious week where I got to spend hours a day in a huge public library, reading and listening to my bookriot list and I posted on all short stories for the month. This July I have chosen to focus on historical fiction, mostly YA.  I don’t need the level of diversion that was the hallmark of my work life last summer, thank the universe, but I’m finding that it helps to increase my YA exposure.

So, when  graduate school was winding down for me back in 2007 and I was doing more practical work than reading and writing, I decided it was time for me to become well read.  In earnest. 

I believe anyone that reads this blog with some regularity is aware somewhat of that goal, now thirteen years old.   I got Anna Karenina and Vanity Fair in those big Barnes and Noble Classics re-issues, before I could binge on free stuff in the glorious new age of e readers and librivox.  I liked them more than I had anticipated. A few summers prior I had done Sense and Sensibility and Jane Eyre, which I believe I noted that I almost gave up on before the wedding. 

And I did quite a few.  I was pleased that I had tackled the majority of classics on the Goodreads Classics list.  But I’m finding I don’t have the bandwidth for them as much as I did when I started this venture, which is to say, classics are terribly depressing and the realities of women in those worlds were grim.  A woman had zero independence without means, and so few had means.  So often you read through something not a relatable anymore to find the woman dies in poverty or disgrace because she made some stupid mistakes or refused to conform but stuck to her principles.  Either way she freezes to death alone in the world.  It’s hard to get through a book and a character you grow to care about when that’s how it ends. I can’t say enough how grateful I am to have a professional career and independence.

But I love historical fiction set in these classic ages, and it’s because there is a good blend of the old world, which I still don’t really understand my attraction to, and the new ways women are allowed to live. And so this leads me to the current books in this post…

Gail Carriger’s Finishing School series

I started this series last summer when I was stressed beyond belief so I sunk myself into lighter books set in schools, which is a great setting for me because I loved school.  So the setting makes me happy and somewhat reminiscent.  But I read the other three since then and I’ll talk about them in a lump.

Sophronia Temminick is trying to finish at a school to create female spies in high society.  The school is in a giant blimp, which is so deliciously and unapologetically steampunk, and in a very James Bond way, there are all kinds of gadgets to manage high adventure spy schemes and thwarting of plans.  Sophronia is my favorite kind of heroine:  brazen, often bites off more than she can chew and unable to resist getting into the action when something isn’t right. These books involve politics between vampires, werewolves, and non supernaturals and plots to control mechanicals, which are robot household servants, and who is gaining power. 

Despite these embellishments, the female trappings are the same: women must find a patron or someone to support them as they just can’t be freelancers, because lord only knows what havoc any kind of independence would wreak, and they still have to be ornamental and pretend innocence and propriety.  Women who are killers but don’t quite understand the mechanics of sex is a difficult mash up to manage, but I think Carriger does it well.  She has other characters who embody more of the prized female virtues of the day and I think these characters help with making this unbelievable and unrealistic mashup more realistic and fun.  I think the friends who want to be traditional ladies, or who already have patrons, or who are double agents, because many of the twists come in the surprise of double agents, help balance out the main character.  But in the end with the werewolves and vampires this is meant to be fun.  It reminds me of the Stoker and Holmes series by Colleen Gleason that I delightfully binged upon last summer.

There is a love triangle that resolves.  Another depressing fact of the past is that no matter what a woman is like when she is young, unless she is rich, which Sophronia is not, she has to end up in some sort of obeisance/loss of independence if she is to fall in love, and Carriger includes the romance subplots without making the end entirely depressing.  But I won’t say more, because that is the end of the fourth and final book in the series.  It does end well and fun, which it should, being the tone of the whole series of danger, intrigue and adventure but with happy endings.  It’s diverting but the research is well done and the tension between the society of the past and women learning to be agents is blended well without being too cringe-worthy.  I find some things that are too anachronistic for historical fiction to be cringe-worthy.  Like when a woman in a historical romance novel is sexually knowledgeable and not ashamed about loving sex. But the sex has to be appealing in those books, so I just think historical romance isn’t for me.

But listening to these got me through an interesting week of driving and some vacation time listening while working on some craft projects.  (I have been doing awesome knitting down my projects since quarantine.) They are worth a read and I would read Carriger’s other mashups of powerful and independent women at different times in history.

I have a plan for some more historical fiction YA in two weeks, especially if that last audiobook in the series becomes available at from the library in time.  Am I a library junkie if I have cards for my local library and the NYPL?  Asking for a friend.

Also my son and I have made it to the final Harry Potter book.  It will have gotten us through four months of quarantine!

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Scary Reads! Ghosts in High School

Is it obvious that I work with children?  I would miss the rhythm of the school year if I only worked with adults.  I like the traditions and structure involved with children. I think I enjoy trick or treating more with my son than I did as I got older as a child. I certainly decorate more for Halloween and Christmas than my childless self did.  I like talking with kids about school events, holidays, and breaks.

This post is about ghosts in high school, but it deals with the settings in different ways.  In one, the protagonists/main characters are teens, and in the other, they are not.  This presents two different stories of going in between the veil in a school setting.

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Absent, Katie Williams

Paige finds herself dead after a fall from the roof of her high school.  When she dies she starts hanging out with two other ghosts bound to the school:  one a girl who also died recently at the school and another who died years ago, but also in his teen years.  Right away she finds out that students in the school believe her death to have been a suicide rather than the accident she believes it to be. She sets out to dispel this rumor by temporarily possessing friends, influencing their statements and behaviors toward this end.  Of course the story of her death is more complicated than initially believed.

Another one that I couldn’t put down.  I know I say that often, but this is the scary books part of the year and there’s a reason I got everything read before the end of August, and it’s YA and I’m shameless in my love of YA.  I love that Paige is trying to work on an age typical goal and is so believable. She still cares about her crush, a guy that liked her but didn’t want to be an official couple with her because she wasn’t cool enough just before the fateful accident. She hasn’t changed as she crossed the veil, continuing to be a sarcastic teenager who cares what people think about her and the knowledge that she will be irrelevant soon enough as they move on with their lives. Her best friend, the popular girl, her crush, and the burner are all believable players.  And she continues to learn and grow from her interactions with them, even as she is a ghost.

Other than being engaging and believable, the story has good twists and turns and I feel it deals well with the issues of teen death, particularly suicide. Lots of teens think about taking their lives, even if just in passing, and this book is frank about the implications of that and the permanence of a choice like that.  How that choice affects the survivors. Why it’s important to Paige to dispel that rumor, which ultimately leads to her discovering the truth.

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A Certain Slant of Light, Laura Whitcomb

Helen is a ghost caught in this world for reasons unbeknownst to her, her most recent host being a high school English teacher.  She finds a student suddenly noticing her in class, a student she finds out is another spirit like her (James) that has found the empty shell of a living body to be alive again. They fall in love and to be able to be together, she finds an empty teenage girl walking around to get into.  They learn about who they were as humans as well as the lives of the hapless teenagers whose bodies they have gotten into and use.

So, like I said, this ghost hangs out with a teacher but is not a teenager.  She gets into a teen body but she did not die as one, and talks about her time on this earth, cleaving to hosts, relying on living humans who don’t know she is there, people whose lives she watches but cannot participate in.  It sets her up to fall in love with the other spirit that she finds the way that she does; it’s a way to be fully alive after at least a hundred years of a strange half existence. It somewhat excuses the terrible recklessness of the spirits that affects their hosts so pervasively, but in that sense, it got a little intense in places.  I felt for the teenage hosts (Jenny and Billy), wherever their spirits were, as Helen and James turn their lives upside down without their knowledge or consent. It balanced out the places where this story was slower and sadder, and it couldn’t have just been too intense or too slow or I wouldn’t have been able to hang in there. But it was still deeply unsettling.  

It was decidedly more literary than YA in its writing and tone, and in the fact that the protagonist isn’t a teenager but an ancient being, and that I wouldn’t have been able to grasp it all as a teenager.  Certainly not in the way I could as an adult, looking at the implications of the story as much as the poetic writing. I still liked it, but because of her finding her love in a high school class, I thought the boy was mortal and I was getting into something else altogether.

While poking around Goodreads for the cover and to look at reviews I saw there is a sequel and some of the reviews have encouraged me to pick it up.  I’d like to know where Jenny and Billy’s spirits were as Helen and James drove their bodies around like stolen cars and the story speaks to that. Yes.

Next week, as we plunge deeper into fall, my posts will be about darting on the other side of the veil.  Because Halloween is about that veil thinning out, easier to slip through.  There are reads for that!!

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Magical School, Part II

I held off writing this post until after I actually handed my child off to the school bus driver this week and saw everyone’s back to school pics on Facebook. All the inevitable crazy that I had somehow forgotten is back.

It crashed down so fast.  As soon as my second week off in August was over I realized that it was back to craziness and you know how time just ignites when one gets the busy-ness of adjusting to another new routine.  My kid is off the football field and back on the soccer field and he’s bringing home an agenda this year with homework copied into it off the board?  What?  I was chewing my nails about his kindergarten adjustment ten minutes ago, I swear.

I think part of the reason the summer flew was because I have been busy with new responsibilities at work, and the new stress made me more likely to read more diverting, wish fulfillment reads.  The Psychologist in me sees a correlation between work stress and diverting books, so here I am with plenty of magic and supernatural books posts rolling into fall.

There is one little piece of my diversion reads that needs to be mentioned as well, and that is the introduction of Audible Originals. There were months when it started when nothing good was available for grabs until they started putting in some Molly Harper, and then my BFF told me that if Molly Harper is being served, my snooty reader butt should come to the table.

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Changeling, Molly Harper

A girl, Sarah, living in a world divided by classes based on having magical powers or not finds herself unexpectedly magical.  This leads to her being hoisted into the magical upper crust, with more privilege but also more danger, power, and intrigue. Visibility for a girl who enjoyed life behind the scenes more than she thought she did when she was there.  Complicated by the fact that she becomes a pawn of her mistress and forced to live a lie while also being revealed as having special power than oh, only one magical person every 150 years or so finds they have. Lots of stakes and she uncovers a nefarious plot against her that she must overcome.  As well as navigating the usual complex upper crust social structure.

I’m not sure why I had to read this many magic schools books to realize that the characters in these are coming of age, their lives completely changing while at the same time the assumptions of the world they are living in are also changing and crashing down around them.  Sarah (renamed Cassandra) discovers changes in the magical world, starts of a revolution that are being hushed up while she is joining with those sorts of loyal friends you find as a teen (if you’re lucky) to save herself. This was engrossing and diverting, just what I needed. There was some rags to riches wish fulfillment in there, but I’m getting too old to really wish for more riches than I have, because in books, they always come with a cost.  And for me, any way to get more money in my life right now would come at a cost to my relationships, so, no. Cost in my real life too. I was good enough to finish up some other reading first when it came out as an Original and I have managed to resist bumping Fledgling up the list thus far.  But good move to Audible on adding Molly Harper books to their Originals selection every month. 

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Etiquette and Espionage, Gail Carriger

Sophronia, the youngest girl of nine in a well to do family, is recruited into what she initially believes is a finishing school for young ladies…which it is, but finishing means finishing a high stakes mission, not only finishing a young lady to be married off into society.  The point of her education, delivered in an airship floating above the sea, is to give her the skills to be an agent that moves around undetected in high class circles under the guise of someone’s lovely, aristocratic wife. Not only is she becoming a lady and a killing machine, she is also assuring that a coveted prototype doesn’t get into the wrong hands.  She makes lifelong friends of all strata as she goes on missions and learns a better curtsy.

Also, how could this not be a fun coming of age book?  I didn’t anticipate it to be steampunk with a touch of supernatural, either.  I thought it would hold to the classic idea of 1800s finishing school, not have interesting conveyances and werewolf and vampire characters.  It added some fun without diverting from the idea of a creative finishing school. I liked that there was a place for Sophronia in a world that, if it truly held to history, would reject her tomboyish ways.  I have had to resist keeping going in the series in order to be able to accomplish my reading goals.

This has also made me think about the number of older stories I have read:  ME Braddon, Wilkie Collins, Austen, Bronte, Tolstoy, Hardy, Radcliffe, etc, that were written in a time when women’s lives were boring and circumscribed.  They were mostly powerless pawns. These revisionist books remind me of the realities of women back then, where one that likes to climb trees and make friends with servants would have to ignore those parts of her if she was going to survive in her world.  It makes me sad for the women whose crazy restrictive clothing really didn’t restrict their lives of social calls and needlework. I mean, even in the old school classic stories, often the women would have to move out of their role somewhat in order to spice up the plot, but those women who were a little more spicy and interesting were certainly less marriageable.  Or if they were marriageable it was usually to men who just wanted to extinguish the light inside them. Ugh. These YA fun, magical, steampunk books make me grateful for my life in this day and age. I don’t think I would have moved well within the confines of an earlier time. A real one, not one floating around in an airship or with magical powers that come with serious responsibility.

Next week is probably some BookRiot before we launch totally into the fall/scary reads.  It will only be mid-September, after all.  Even though it’s already kind of cold and pumpkin spice is taking over.  And why do I need a light for my laptop now when I get up in the morning to write if I’m not working out?

The year is wrapping up, my friends.

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Magical School, Part I

Ah, Labor Day weekend.   I’d like the pumpkin spice to stay off my beach!   I was aware of the pumpkin switchover on Aug 19 and I wasn’t happy about it.

School always starts in public school in New York after Labor Day, so I might be at the beach this weekend but I’ll still be loading my kid on the bus on Wednesday.  Not holding a pumpkin coffee because I’m not ready.

In honor of returning to school this week in my neck of the woods, I’m posting on books set in school.  And not just any school:  Magical school.

I think I would still love the idea of magic schools even if I hadn’t read through Harry Potter twice already.  I love school, and magic lends itself well to academia. There are old practitioners, theories, kids coming into their powers and discovering who they are.  There is something cozy about lectures as it gets cold, hours of study time as the darkness closes in early, and then the freedom at the end of an academic year as the warm weather and light start. And the genuine satisfaction from learning.  Yeah, nerd, but I’m still cool.

Other than being in school with superpowers, these books both had good character arcs.

It should surprise no one that I read the following books when I needed a diversion this summer from the difficult topics from my challenge reading.   

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Magic for Liars, Sarah Gailey

A PI with a twin sister who inherited magical powers that she did not is hired to investigate a murder at the very school for magical children where her sister teaches.  The sisters share the trauma of their mother’s death but they are distant from one another when connection would have helped them both through the trauma. The PI struggles with connection to anyone on any kind of ongoing basis and coming to solve the murder offers the sisters a second chance.

As suggested in my synopsis, this book was more about sisters than it was about magic.  Magic created the rift between them and the insecurity the PI feels at walking among the magical without being magical herself.  You can just feel her growth as a character from isolated and insecure into someone more connected and just more alive, leaving some of her own darkness behind in the process.  This was one of those books with astute observations of human nature and events, darkness and isolation that can grow in our souls. The twist is appreciable. Even though it was heavy in some of its themes, it was diverting, a lovely debut novel.  

I accidentally pre-ordered this but decided it was predestined and didn’t cancel the order. And I want to keep up on newer books that interest me, as I still haven’t read Washington Black, Children of Blood and Bone, There There, and The Power from last year when I was frantically noveling.  And then when it came in, I diverged from Ayiti to absorb this instead to take a break from the intensity. I regret nothing.

 

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School for Psychics, K.C.Archer

A young adult who is lost in her personal life is recruited to attend a school for psychics, where she learns her origins (she is adopted) and uncovers a plot between two rivaling groups of psychics.

This is less school-y than Magic for Liars.  It is about attending school, but it is more of an adult novel than it is YA.  It’s sexual themes as well as the ages of the characters, some of them already having had professional jobs.  It felt YA at times because it had to do with schools of characters discovering their abilities, but it wandered away from the school part and into the practical uses of these talents.  It was like, yea, there’s school, but also students are called in to work on crimes and real world things before they have graduated. They are thrown into the concerns and machinations of the government and the adult world rather than merely tensions and a plot that is entirely based on school.

Also, the main character is working on deep seated trust issues, and I felt that the author does this well.  There is a high stakes plot, but like in Magic for Liars, it is about connection and deciding to work as a team rather than being an independent operator as part of the protagonist’s change.  The only part of the character creation that was not consistent was the fact that she had supportive parents and always had. Usually her level of distrust and inability to work as a team in the beginning comes from a more difficult childhood than she appears to have had.  Both when she was with her biological parents and after, it appears that she was pretty well supported emotionally. That she wouldn’t develop trust issues because she was pretty safe. She was adopted, and this can create trust issues, but it doesn’t always when done right. However, this book is clearly a setup for a series, so maybe we will learn more of the protagonist’s darkness as it goes.

This one came into my life as an audible deal of the day.  These magic books just find their way to me. It reminds me of the novel I am trying to get into the world myself, the one that I wrote.  It doesn’t have the same adult themes, but it deals with discovering nefarious plots not immediately evident.  And hopefully because the character arc is awesome!

Stay tuned for the second week of school books just to get us (me) in the academic/fall mood.   Because I need it!  I like peppermint more as a seasonal flavor but I will submit to the pumpkin once a season or so, just to remember that once upon a time I liked fall.

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