Etiquette and Espionage by Gail Carriger

Information

Goodreads: Etiquette and Espionage
Series: Finishing School #1
Source: Purchased
Published: 2013

Official Summary

It’s one thing to learn to curtsy properly. It’s quite another to learn to curtsy and throw a knife at the same time. Welcome to Finishing School.

Fourteen-year-old Sophronia is a great trial to her poor mother. Sophronia is more interested in dismantling clocks and climbing trees than proper manners–and the family can only hope that company never sees her atrocious curtsy. Mrs. Temminnick is desperate for her daughter to become a proper lady. So she enrolls Sophronia in Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality.

But Sophronia soon realizes the school is not quite what her mother might have hoped. At Mademoiselle Geraldine’s, young ladies learn to finish…everything. Certainly, they learn the fine arts of dance, dress, and etiquette, but they also learn to deal out death, diversion, and espionage–in the politest possible ways, of course. Sophronia and her friends are in for a rousing first year’s education.

Star Divider

Review

I have fond memories of constantly seeing Etiquette and Espionage and the other Finishing School books in the library around the time they came out (2013, for this one), always intending to check them out and read them because the Gail Carriger seemed so popular. . .and never actually doing it. So it is with great interest that, eight years later, I have finally read this book — and realized it’s nothing like I expected it to be. I was expecting something like Kathleen Baldwin’s A School for Unusual Girls, since both novels have the premise that a boarding school for girls is covertly an institution that trains them in espionage, but the similarities basically end there. While Baldwin’s series is immersive, serious, and romantic, Carriger’s is a steampunk tongue-in-cheek take that skews a bit younger.

I have to write as a disclaimer that Carriger and I don’t seem to share the same sense of of humor. While she’s obviously making little winking jokes throughout the entire book that I’m clearly supposed to find amusing, it just wasn’t my cup of tea. I also wasn’t expecting the characters in a book about a finishing school (which DOES train its students for polite society, in addition to the darker arts) to talk as they’re Bertie Wooster, straight out of a Wodehouse novel, particularly because I believe the time period is a bit earlier than the Jeeves novels. I’m sure some readers will be tickled by the whole aesthetic, but it wasn’t really what I was expecting and I just didn’t find it that funny.

That aside, the book is fun. I really liked that protagonist Sophronia is 14, and she acts like it — a good reminder that YA was more like this eight years ago, focused on characters younger than 18 who acted more like teens than like grown adults. Sophoronia is silly, rebellious, friendly, and skilled all at once, and though I think I’d share her older sisters’ opinion that she’s a bit annoying if I met her in real life, she’s entertaining to read about, and I do have to admire her heart.

I’m still not 100% sure what the finishing school is for. Whose “side” are they on? What do they do? Are they good? Evil? It seems weird to me this isn’t fully covered in book 1 because I don’t want to have to read the rest of the series to find out. I guess readers are just supposed to expect the story as it is, but I was worried the whole time that, in seeking to do something right, Sophronia might actually be causing harm. And maybe she did, but I still don’t know at the end of the book!

Etiquette and Espionage isn’t my favorite book ever, but I think it’s just a matter of my personal taste. If someone likes this sense of humor, or if someone is looking for a lower YA book, this could be a great choice.

Briana
4 stars

City of Secrets by Victoria Ying

City of Secrets

Information

Goodreads: City of Secrets
Series: City of Secrets #1
Source: Library
Published: 2020

Summary

Ever Barnes is an orphan living in the Switchboard Operating Facility. Like his father before him, he guards a secret that could save his city, although he does not know what it is. But the men who killed his father now mean to kill Ever, as well. Fortunately, he has Hannah, a new friend determined to help, no matter the cost.

Star Divider

Review

City of Secrets is a fun steampunk adventure sure to delight its target audience of middle-grade readers. The story jumps immediately into the action, introducing the fascinating Switchboard Operating Facility, a call center that has moving staircases, hidden trapdoors, and more. And it is all overseen by Ever Barnes, a shy orphan boy who hides from the Switchboard’s menacing supervisor. Exactly what is going on in this building remains unclear, but the narrative sets up enough mystery to intrigue readers and get them hooked.

Initially, I admit, all the mystery left me more than a little confused. City of Secrets prefers to do its worldbuilding as it goes, meaning readers simply need to accept that they have entered a city full of spies, secret societies, and puzzle-like buildings without knowing precisely why all these things are necessary or what is going on. The main thing to hold on to is that Ever and Hannah are the protagonists, so one simply decides to cheer them on, whether or not they understand why. Truth be told, however, Hannah and Ever do not understand what is going on, either, so, really, the story is mostly a wild ride through secret passageways, hidden slides, and life-threatening booby traps. Presumably, all this action is meant to keep readers reading, in the hope that, eventually, something will be explained.

Most of the explanations, strangely, are left for the sequel, however. The quick overview given to Hannah and Ever of the city’s secrets feels more than a little unfulfilling, as does the book’s conclusion, which raises more questions than it answers. Again, I think readers are meant to be satisfied with the action–giant steampunk robots! giant cogs that can squish people! giant scary horror dogs!–and so distracted from asking for any real narrative meat. In fact, I strongly suspect that many of the questions raised by the plot do not have actual answers. Action-adventure excitement trumps narrative logic here.

Middle grade graphic novels are, however, in high demand right now, and avid readers tend to tear through them very quickly. I imagine this one will do well and be eagerly read by fans of steampunk and fantasy adventures, even if the worldbuilding and the plot are sorely lacking. The story has enough danger and mystery to be engrossing, even if reflective readers eventually realize that too much information is missing from the book for City of Secrets to be one of the year’s standout graphic novels.

3 Stars

Ink, Iron, and Glass by Gwendolyn Clare

Information

Goodreads: Ink,  Iron, and Glass
Series: Ink, Iron, and Glass #1
Source: Library
Published: Feb. 2018

Summary

Elsa lives in the scripted world of Veldana, a world created by a scientist called a scriptologist.  Scriptologists have the ability to write worlds that come to life (though only Elsa’s contains actual living humans).  But then Elsa’s mother is kidnapped and Elsa has to travel to the real world for help.  Along with a scriptologist, an alchemist, and a rather handsome mechanist, Elsa will track down the abductors and find a way to save Veldana.

Review

A fair number of books exist that feature characters who can travel through different worlds or different book worlds or different worlds shaped by a writer’s hand.  Still, Ink, Iron, and Glass sounds like it has highly interesting premise.  What reader does not like a story about the power of words to shape reality?  Unfortunately, however, the execution of the story fails to live up to its premise.   Ink, Iron, and Glass relies on too many familiar YA elements to be truly remarkable or even very interesting–most avid readers of YA will be able to predict every “twist” and “turn.”  The characters are not sympathetic enough to carry the story on their own and the prose sounds truly amateur.  So, without a well-constructed plot, the book falls flat.

The first element to strike me was the prose, which, especially towards the beginning of the book, strongly reminded me of amateur college writers.  I understand that this is book is a debut and some reviewers are willing to overlook the flaws of first novels.  However, there are plenty of writers attempting to be published every day and many of them write excellent prose, even if they have never been published before.  I therefore do have to question why I should overlook poor writing in a book that has passed the gatekeeping process and been through editing by a professional.  The internal monologues given to us by the protagonist prove especially grating and should, in my opinion, have been edited out.

However, even if readers are willing to overlooking the prose, the book has little else to recommend it as especially well-written.  Elsa, our protagonist, is partially not developed enough to warrant much interest and partially too disagreeable for readers to cheer for her on first glance.  She is arrogant, rude, and fond of isolating herself from others because she evidently feels herself so superior.  And, of course, like almost every other YA protagonist out there, she is superior.  This world contains “mad people” who may possess a rare skill in of three disciplines: scriptology, mechanics, and alchemy.  But Elsa, to no reader’s surprise, possesses rare talents in all three sciences!  She is a polymath!

The premise on which the world is built might have saved the book.  However, though it promises us scriptological action, there is less world jumping than one might suppose because, after all, there are two other sciences present that the summary on the book jacket mostly ignores.  These sciences are not well defined or clearly explained.  Readers get some insight into scriptology and how one has to set up a world with certain physical properties and how one needs to be careful to add in air, define Newtonian physics, specify time passages, etc.   (This is really interesting and I would have welcomed elaboration.)  But mechanics just seems like people inventing things as normal.  Except..they are unusually fast at it or do not need training or something?  And alchemy, while it sounds close to chemistry, actually allows people not only to work with poisons and heal people but also to create life forms, apparently.  Can they one day make humans or are they limited to animals?  How independent are the life forms?  Could they have souls?  None of this is explained.

With amateur prose, an unsympathetic protagonist, and an ill-defined world, the book really needs its plot to carry it through.  However, the plot itself is nothing exceptional.  It contains the usual elements of YA: the protagonist unnaturally good at everything, the instant attraction to a handsome boy, and the “surprise” ending.  This “surprise” ending  has occurred in so many recent YA novels that I have to wonder why anyone is even surprised anymore.  The book simply feels lifeless and unoriginal as a result and I considered returning it to the library unfinished every night when I had to force myself to pick it up again.  I feel bad saying it, but the book simply is not very good.

However, my criticisms of Ink, Iron, and Glass may be precisely the reason other people will love this book. Its prose, while poor, is actually pretty similar to a lot of other recent YA novels, so I can only assume most readers will not be bothered by it.  And its premise is interesting enough that I think a lot of readers will be wiling to overlook the execution.  Finally, the book reads like half the other YA novels out there–but those novels sell.  The author presumably saw a formula that is working and used it.  So, even though I do not consider this book well-written, I am convinced that it will sell pretty well and garner decent, if mixed, reviews.

3 Stars

Mechanica by Betsy Cornwell

MechanicaInformation

Goodreads: Mechanica
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: August 25, 2015

Official Summary

Nicolette’s awful stepsisters call her “Mechanica” to demean her, but the nickname fits: she learned to be an inventor at her mother’s knee. Her mom is gone now, though, and the Steps have turned her into a servant in her own home.

But on her sixteenth birthday, Nicolette discovers a secret workshop in the cellar and begins to dare to imagine a new life for herself. Could the mysterious books and tools hidden there—and the mechanical menagerie, led by a tiny metal horse named Jules—be the key to escaping her dreary existence? With a technological exposition and royal ball on the horizon, the timing might just be perfect for Nicolette to earn her freedom at last.

Gorgeous prose and themes of social justice and family shine in this richly imagined Cinderella retelling about an indomitable inventor who finds her prince . . . but realizes she doesn’t want a fairy tale happy ending after all.

Review

Mechanica puts a charming steampunk spin on the classic tale of “Cinderella.”  Nicolette Lampton feels trapped by her cruel stepmother until she discovers her mother’s hidden basement workshop and begins tinkering to make inventions of her own.  She hopes with hard work she’ll be able to buy herself a new life and maybe even become as skilled as her mother.  After all, there’s not just a royal ball coming up; there’s also an Exhibition!

Mechanica gives readers a “Cinderella” character who really knows what to do with her work ethic.  Instead of feeling downtrodden by her abusive family , she feels she’s simply biding her time until good things can come her way.  While I wish  the family dynamics would have been explored more–I think there’s a lot to say about abuse in many fairy tales that many authors simply overlook–I did admire Nicolette and her drive.

Besides the somewhat flat step-family, most of the other characters are similarly well-developed and reveal multiple facets of their personalities throughout the novel.  There’s also a (mechanical) animal companion, and I fall for those every time in books.  Sign me up for a cute horse with intelligence and unconditional love!

The official summary broadly hints how the end of the book will go, so I won’t consider a few more hints much of spoilers.  I’ve seen other readers imply it doesn’t go how they wanted, but I didn’t have an issue with it.  I also didn’t have a problem with the apparent insta-love earlier in the novel; Cornwell clearly indicates that it’s supposed to be read as infatuation.  She’s playing with fairy tale tropes, much the way Frozen does with the insta-love between Anna and Hans.  As for insta-friendship, I don’t find that hard to believe at all.  Half of being someone’s friend is deciding you want to be.

Overall, I just found Mechanica a really enjoyable read.  It will be  appreciated by anyone who adores retold fairy tales as a I do.
4 stars Briana

The Friday Society by Adrienne Kress

Goodreads: The Friday Society
Source: ARC

Summary:  In Edwardian London, three young women find themselves inexplicably drawn to solving the same mysterious murders.  Together, Cora (a lab assistant), Michiko (a samurai), and Nellie (a magician’s assistant) will employ their unusual talents to track down the criminal who has eluded all the experts.

ReviewThe Friday Society is the perfect book for any reader looking for an adventure full of girl power.  Cora, Michiko, and Nellie are fantastic protagonists with great personalities and a wide variety of unusual skills.  Alone, each one of them is talented, capable, and uniquely charming: Cora is an intelligent lab assistance, Michiko is a deadly warrior, and Nellie is a glamorous magician’s assistant/escape artist.  Together, the three form a perfectly balanced team, bound by their sense of justice and desire to break the boundaries placed on women and make a difference in their world.

And their world is quite interesting, as well.  The Friday Society is steampunk, but though there are some very cool weapons and inventions featuring cavorite, a newly discovered glowing material that defies gravity, the story remains character-driven.  The inventions and alternate history provide a colorful backdrop for the story, but never overpower it.  Kress also very skillfully creates a world where it is believable a few women like Cora, Michiko, and Nellie might be in fairly influential positions, but where women in general are still looked down upon by men.  The protagonists, then, stand out as independent and bold, without coming across as complete anomalies.

The story itself is an exciting mixture of mystery, action, adventure, history, and romance.  Essentially, this book has everything in just about the right proportions.  Kress writes it all in a straightforward style reminiscent of her protagonists’ energetic personalities, and also includes some wonderfully humorous references about what would happen…if all this were in a book.  It turns out that this book is not always what one would expect.

It is a book that deserves to be read!  With spunky characters, creepy villains, and a ton of crazy scenarios that only Cora, Michiko, and Nellie could possibly find themselves in, it offers a lot of entertainment, as well as a lot of heart.

Publication Date: December 6, 2012

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Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare

Goodreads: Clockwork Angel
Series: The Infernal Devices #1

Summary: Tessa Gray sails from America to London to meet with her older brother Nate.  Instead, she is kidnapped and then rescued by a group called the Shadowhunters, who dedicate their lives to hunting demons. Quickly Tessa finds herself tangled in a battle between the Shadowhunters and the dark forces of the Downworld who want her for her unique powers and to create an unstoppable army of clockwork people.

Review: Clockwork Angel has an interesting premise, based on the interactions of various supernatural groups and the humans who associate with them during the Victorian era.  It is the first steampunk book I have read that leans more toward fantasy than science fiction, and I enjoyed the blend of history and fantasy immensely, as it made the story exotic on more than one level.  However, it is a bit disappointing that the tale does not lean very heavily on its setting at all; it gives the distinct impression the exact chain of events could have happened in a book set in the present.

The story itself is little on the long side, but it features some great characters, including absolutely wonderful villains, and it offers a few nice plot twists.  Things in Clockwork Angel are never as straightforward as they seem.  Also, a lot of hard choices need to be made about whom to trust and what to do when there is a conflict between friends and family and what might be right.

On the romance front, there is not really a triangle, but there are two different guys for Tess to be interested in.   Will is a bit of a mysterious bad boy with a difficult past, which many readers have found appealing.  For those who prefer nice guys, there is Jem.  He is an incredible fighter who likes poetry and is protective of Tessa.  He also, like Will, happens to be quite handsome.  On the downside, I think he came across as a little too sensitive at points.  It is hard to argue he is not manly, with the warrior thing going on, but the thought is tempting.

Clockwork Angel was exciting and quite fun to read.  I will definitely be checking out the sequel, but this is not one over which I will suffer sleepless nights until I find a copy.  Nice, but not mind-blowing.

Published: 2010

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

Goodreads: Leviathan
Series: Leviathan #1

Summary: Prince Aleksander is fleeing for his life after the murders of his mother and father, the rulers of Austro-Hungary. Deryn Sharp has disguised herself as a boy so she can serve in the British Air Service. The First World War is starting, and Alek and Deryn are not sure they are on the same side, but a series of events will bring them together on a surprising adventure.

Review: Leviathan started out slowly, taking time to build a world where Germany and her allies have invented machines that walk like animals and England and her allies rely on enormous fabricated species to do the work of machines. For the first 100 pages, I admit I was somewhat bored. However, after the scene is set, Westerfeld takes readers on a fairly exciting adventure complete with battles between the different Clanker and Darwinist technologies and a plethora of political and personal secrets. The story is populated with a great cast of characters, including Alek and his loyal followers, Deryn, a lady scientist!, and the Leviathan itself. The interactions between them are fascinating and sure to become more complex in the sequel. Though there was only the faintest whiff of a romance in Leviathan, that is obviously coming, too. Overall, Leviathan will be a good read for fans of history or science fiction and will be equally appealing to readers of either gender.

Also included are a number of fantastic illustrations of goose bump-inducing scenes by Keith Thompson and a note on the actual history of WWI for comparison with the story.

Published: 2009

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The Strange Case of Finley Jayne by Kady Cross

Summary: Finley Jayne has a darkness inside her which gives her unnatural speed and strength.  It impels her to lash out at those who threaten her friends and to seek adventures proper young ladies would avoid.  Few want to hire a girl so unusual, but Lady Morton decides to employ Finley as a companion to her daughter Phoebe, hoping that Finley can save their family from the dark secret that menaces them.  Prequel to the Steampunk Chronicles.  Available exclusively as an e-book.

 Review: This prequel works mainly as a teaser for the following books in the Steampunk Chronicles.  It is a short, light read that introduces the world of steampunk, as well as the heroine Finley Jayne.  I suspect those who have read the following book, The Girl in the Steel Corset, would enjoy it a bit more than those who haven’t (such as myself), since Cross included some humorous references to a character who will not appear until later and might have, for all I know, included more such nods to the series.  However, no previous knowledge of the series is necessary to understand the plot as a whole.   Continue reading