Book Review: Curtsies & Conspiracies

Curtsies & ConspiraciesI’m finally catching up to my NetGalley obligations, posting reviews of books I’ve gained access to through my membership. In this case, it’s the second in Gail Carriger’s Finishing School Series, Curtsies & Conspiracies. As I mentioned last week, I inhaled both the first and this second book in the series in a sitting, enjoying the near-contiguous hand-off between the two.

In book two, Sophronia has started to settle in to Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality when the group is warned that its members will face the first of the tests to determine whether the girls are, indeed, worthy to continue.

As usual, Sophronia sees conspiracies behind conspiracies, but has to suffer ostracism from her peers for her unusually high marks. Thus, she begins a closer association with non-student Vieve, Mme Lefoux’s niece, as well as the sootie, Soap, who’s been helping her keep Bumbersnoot well-fed. Together, the unlikely trio explore some of the details of the technology at the core of the series.

“The first aether-borne dirigible flight, and we get to witness it! Do you realize, if Giffard’s calculations are correct, this could halve float times? Can you believe it? We could get all the way to Scotland in four days! I wonder how he is handling aether-current monitoring. Can you imagine being that high up?”

Sophronia was not as impressed as Vieve thought she should be. “It is still faster by sleeper train.”

“Yes, but this is floating. Floating! Using aether currents. The possibilities are endless. It’s so exciting!” Vieve bounced up and down on Sophronia’s bed.

The young inventor had stopped by for a visit after breakfast. Sophronia had no idea where the scamp ate, but clearly it was within hearing distance of the assembly.

The expanding circle of incongruous names (Lord Dingleproops?! Felix Golborne, Viscount Mersey?? Professor Shrimpdittle! Picklemen, for crying out loud!) accounts for a reliable thread of laughter on its own, without considering the string of ridiculous circumstances Sophronia injects herself into. So while the author defined the Parasol Protectorate series as a comedy of manners, this series is shaping up to take the ridiculous deeper into the sublime.

I very much appreciate the association of the very fine points of etiquette with profound silliness, since it serves to underline the constraints under which people have chosen to operate while also illustrating that from another perspective, even constraints can serve a purpose and bring greater meaning to any given set of interactions.

So once again I will highly recommend a Carriger book for those looking for immersive, addictive escapism to a world that, while in some ways is staid and antiquated, also has interesting parallels to ours. The steampunk crossover with paranormal should appeal to a wide audience, even with such a young protagonist.

Feeling the Waves

"There's no secret to balance, you just have to feel the waves." -Frank HerbertI’m starting to feel like a broken record: Too much, too much, it’s all too much. And yet, this week, I feel like I’ve come closest to surfing the waves of emotions, work, and escapism so that I’m feeling slightly more balanced and healthy than I had been.

Even with the short notice about our cousin, the notification that he had, indeed, passed on Thursday was more of a blessing than a horror. Hubs had gotten to say his goodbye last week. With one lung already gel-ified then, we hoped the cancer would take him quickly as there was no quality of life even then. Rest in peace, brother of hubs’ youth.

On the same day, I got some fantastic (to me!) news: I was accepted into the Spring 2015 session (March & April) of the virtual writer workshop. I’m still waiting to hear what, specifically, will be required, but I know I will be submitting pieces weekly for critique, and critiquing seven from my cohort in turn, also weekly. It’s going to be a lot of work, but I’m hopeful this takes my writing to the next level, and gives me a longer-term connection with other authors serious about their writing careers.

Friday, then, we saw the first payment to begin work on a big new contract at work. This means the next few weeks are going to be crazy at the office, so I knew I needed to focus on NOT-work for a few days.

Friday night we shared a lovely cuddle and catch-up on Agents of Shield. Yesterday the weather was snow, sleet, and freezing nastiness, so we didn’t leave the house, and I got to read the ARC for Leaving Berlin. (You’ll see the review 3/3, the day it’s released to the public. As a preview: Pre-order the book now!) I was even inspired to write… all of 312 words. But hubs had a link for that too: 25 things creative people do differently. If I’ve started finding a rhythm at home, maybe that will give me the energy I need to fuel that creative engine.

So: Goals – some writing (partial check); stay-at-home date night (check); book review posting (check); more home settling (partial check). Walking? That would be a week of NOPE. Between sub-zero and ice, honey don’t play that… As I said at the top, finding some balance, but it seems always at the cost of something falling off the plate. Of course, shoveling and walking today means I’m exhausted now and morning comes quickly these days.

Once again, then, I’ll encourage you to check out how my fellow ROW80ers are doing on their goals, and promise to report back next week with my progress–hoping the waves don’t catch me in the undertow in the meantime.

Book Review: Etiquette & Espionage

Etiquette & Espionage: Finishing School Series Book 1This is another book I picked up through my NetGalley membership. I’d thoroughly enjoyed Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series (and reviewed Soulless, Timeless, Heartless, Changeless, and Blameless on my blog), so even though this new series falls into the YA genre, it carries over enough of the steampunk world-building and even a few of the characters from that first series that I was tipped into wanting to read it. After all, a series intro like the one that comes with this book promises great things:

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.

The writing style shows Carriger has continued to strengthen her trademark voice. The humor is deeply embedded in the story–but in a British, stiff-upper-lip tone that reflects what I enjoy most about Monty Python:

“How do you do? Isn’t this a spiffing day? Really, quite spiffing. I’m Dimity. Who are you?”

“Sophronia.”

“Is that all?”

“What, isn’t it enough?”

“Oh, well, I mean to say, I’m Dimity Ann Plumleigh-Teignmott, actually, in full.”

“Sophronia Angelina Temminnick.”

“Gosh, that’s a mouthful.”

“It is? I suppose so.” As though Dimity Ann Plumleigh-Teignmott were a nice easy sort of name.

The nicest part of the story is Sophronia’s evolution from family misfit to something even more interesting–and the subversive commentary on women’s roles even in very early 20th-century England. Above all, this finishing school is a way for young women of quality to become aware of the wider application of feminine wiles and tricks of accoutrement. It’s easy to imagine a school like this turning out the Mata Hari–in fact, the timeline of that woman’s life falls neatly into the framework established for this story, and I’m having a head-slapping moment for not having tumbled to that fact earlier.

:D

For the first in a series, this book does not suffer from over-explanation–though I suspect my deep familiarity with the Parasol Protectorate series may also mean I would have been irritated had the author gone into additional detail about the politics and world in which Sophronia is making her way. In fact, the inclusion of Mme Lefoux and her niece operated as something of Easter Eggs for me, and served as tidy reminders of the wider world Sophronia faces. Because, certainly, she is young and naive when she starts at the boarding school, and needs the perspective their experiences can bring to bear.

In view of the fact that I swallowed the book (and its sequel) in a sitting last year while I was supposed to be focused on finishing homework myself, I can highly recommend this book for its ability to draw the reader into an escapist fantasy operating on a consistent set of internal rules. For anyone who wants a more scientific take on young people away at school for the first time (as opposed to the magic in Harry Potter‘s universe), this should fit the bill nicely.

Enough Already

I know when I have had enough, I just don't always act on it...I’m sure my friends in Boston have said this already (and earned it!) but all the overload of the past few months finally tipped me over into … doing nothing.

The quote from Zen to Zany seems appropriate, because this week my brain shut down. It forced me to act on having had enough already.

We celebrated our anniversary as well as Santino’s second birthday this past week, and we did both quietly at home. The frigid temps have kept us inside for the past four days, so I only walked three days last week, for 5.6 miles. I’ve taken care of mindless, administrivial, and frustrating things. My brain just hasn’t been there for anything more taxing or interesting, and at this point I’m having a hard time reconstructing anything actually productive I accomplished this week.

Except that I cleared our junk room and have now set it up as hubs’ treatment space. Which is great, but premature, considering he’s not quite licensed in Virginia yet. Even though he is, in Wisconsin. Like I said… administrivial hoops to jump through. The nice thing about having done that work is that the whole house feels more energized for not having things stuffed in that room willy-nilly for us to face “later”. It’s been on my long-term to-do list for about six months, so I’m completing at least part of my goal of finalizing our “move-in”.

I suspect part of the nudge to Just Doing It was getting the notification of the impending end of our USPS forwarding order. (We’ve really been here that long?!) And/or having received my MBA diploma in yesterday’s mail. (FINALLY!)

Whatever the case may be, it was good to check the task off my list. It was another¬† reflection of how internally focused the week was. Since KouKi seems to have grown up just enough to hold it through the night and let us know when she needs to go out–and the cold snap has frozen the yard sufficient that the dogs don’t come in looking like they’ve been mud wrestling–we’re starting to get more rest. It will be a while before that means I’m not a zombie–especially since it looks like we really are on a deathwatch for hubs’ cousin. There will be more emotional wounds to recover from in the near future.

At least settling more fully into our house gives me the roots and calm space that I have some hope of getting into a real routine. Soon. We’ll see whether that is this week or this month, but in the meantime, some of my ROW80 cohorts are still managing to accomplish what they’ve set out to do. Check back next week to see whether I’m back in the saddle again.

Lovely Blog Award

One Lovely Blog AwardMy author friend Jane Isaac nominated me for a Lovely Blog Award earlier this week. Since I need a writing exercise that keeps my keyboard fingers limber, I figure seven facts you (may or may not) know about me should constitute a simple challenge in my brain-dead state. (The rules indicate listing 7 facts and then tagging some fellow bloggers to ask them to do the same, so watch for the baton passing at the end.)

  1. I was born at the Ohio State University hospital, making me a Buckeye… but in name only, since we moved away before I was one year old.
  2. I first learned German when I was learning to speak–after we moved from Columbus to Kiel. I had this idea as a young girl, then, that I could speak German–which made for a rude awakening when we moved to Berlin when I was in 4th grade, and I was placed in a remedial German class.
  3. I made up for having forgotten so much by moving up to an intermediate German class halfway through 4th grade.
  4. I was in the double mother-tongue track by the time I was in 7th grade, meaning half my classes were taught in German–including French.
  5. I’m still fluent in French and German. And I have some rudimentary Russian, Mandarin Chinese, and Spanish skills.
  6. Because of my language abilities and international background I never expected to marry an American.
  7. Hubs (who was born and raised in the American heartland) and I celebrated our 17th anniversary Monday with a silly faces contest he documented in a series of selfies and made into a sweet (or goofy, depending on your point of view) movie.

Now for the taggees (if you’ll forgive the coinage): Rebecca Clare Smith (as if she hadn’t already answered enough questions), AK Anderson (because I may have wimped out on the Quest, but think her thoughts are worth soliciting), and Dionne Lister (since I haven’t asked her enough intrusive questions this week).

Brain Mush

"It's always much easier to be Grateful when things are going smashingly well, than when they are testing your sanity."I’m beginning to wonder exactly when the pile-on of obligations will subside… Somehow I had imagined I’d have all this extra time left over now that I’ve completed my MBA. Instead, I feel like I’m in a dead sprint that has no end.

We’re just about to start work on a new account this week at the office, and I’ve spent the majority of my weekend filling out The Form From Hell That Shall Not Be Named. And the work we’re doing is something the vendors warned the customer couldn’t be begun without a 90-day lead time… but somehow we’re going to pull this off by the end of February. I’m actually confident we can deliver… but it’s likely to mean logging some extra hours, too.

On the other hand, we also just had an anomalous weather weekend, in which we enjoyed temperatures in the 60s this afternoon, and rewarded the troika (of two girleez and a boyka!) with an almost-3-mile walk. Hubs got to wear shorts. It was a nice reward/trade-off from earlier in the week when we were shivering in the teens. And no doubt contributed to my stuffy head sneeziness. We walked on 5 of 7 days for 8.5+ total miles last week, and we’re finally starting to see a more consistent pay-off with the littlest puppy giving signals to do her business OUTSIDE.

The brain mush, though… And that form… The upside of that combination is that it’s given me an excuse to touch base with old friends, and learn about exciting new options coming soon to Booktastik (because Dionne always merits a shout-out!). Hubs has also been prodding the mush, sending first a link to a Native American code of ethics, and then 25 lessons from Buddha. That first post had an entry about “everyone makes mistakes, and all mistakes can be forgiven” that got me where I live. I’m still pondering how the reality of forgiveness plays out in day-to-day living, though… and realize I’m talking in abstractions for most readers, but wonder if anyone has had a personal experience with forgiving “the unforgivable” and re-making a relationship with a family member…? Particularly if trust is broken and unlikely to be regained…? How does one go about living this reality? Especially when there are so many competing priorities?

So this week I have more questions than answers. And I’m still pondering plot feedback that may have saved me from predictability but still begs the question of how to proceed. Or even when I’ll find time again to sit at the keyboard to pound out fiction words. I am, after all, still at the same word count where I was two weeks ago. On the other hand, I did get to read a few books this week. So maybe I just need to go with having some brain decompression time in the other direction, and try again next week.

Either way, I encourage you to see what the other ROW80ers are managing this week, and I’ll be back next week with whatever interim answers I might find.

Book Review: Born Confused

Born ConfusedI got this title through my membership at NetGalley because I was intrigued by the cross-cultural perspective of a second-generation South Asian young woman facing the summer before her senior year. I hoped the immersion in the Indian-American point of view would take me past the very young voice the author imbued in her protagonist, Dimple. It took a few chapters for me to really get into the story given Dimple’s profound lack of self-confidence, her level of self-absorption, and her undiagnosed eating disorder.

It’s evident from the beginning that even Dimple isn’t entirely sure of her perspective:

I didn’t have to struggle for spy status. Fortunately I have this gift for invisibility, which comes in handy when you’re trying to take sneaky peeks at other people’s lives, and which is odd, considering I’m one of only two Indians in the whole school.

Her best friend is deeply troubled from family drama, so the story ends up being about the perverse attempt at exchanging self-hood between the two girls. The patter of the writing style carries a heavy English-as-a-second-language Indian flavor with compound nouns, verbs, and adjectives used liberally in the narrative.

All of these elements combined to make my first impression of Tanuja Desai Hidier’s work lean toward indifference. However, as the narrative unfolds, and Dimple has to learn both about herself and reveal the things she’s kept hidden even from her closest friend, she grows into a surprisingly strong young woman. By the end of the book I was entranced by who she’d become and what she’d learned not only of herself, but also her heritage.

The main issue for me, when reading YA novels, is how callow the protagonists are. In stories where that unformed self is not challenged I’m left frustrated; in this story, Dimple has to come to terms with both her own and her friend’s self-destructive tendencies, as well as learn to understand and accept her family’s love. It ended up being a profound exploration of how to balance different cultural influences in a single individual, and left me satisfied that Dimple could grow into a more interesting adult having faced all the things she started out wishing she could ignore.

For anyone who’s interested in a story with a strong South Asian flavor or one that addresses a different aspect of being a third-culture kid, this one has worthwhile nuggets to recommend itself.

Loving Animals

"Until one has loved an animal, a part of one's soul remains unawakened." -Anatole FranceThe problem with seeing tragedy down the road is that you must nonetheless experience the full fruition of that pain. Mom lost her 7-year-old girl just three weeks after she’d been the picture of health to the extent that she’d taken her to be bred. We were expecting puppies, not death. And yet, Lara passed yesterday afternoon while we were rushing her to the emergency vet. I watched her go through the same phases of shedding her physical form as I had Kyra this past September. The labored breathing, the twitching, the gawping for air. It’s just as hard when it’s an animal you’ve helped care for as when it’s one of your own. Anatole France’s quote is appropriate both for the joys loving furbabies brings, as well as for the unparalleled pain, as they steal softly from our lives even as we grasp at the final straws of hope that they might recover to enjoy a few more magical moments with us.

I’m as emotionally and physically exhausted as I’ve ever been. We’re just at the point at work when we’re gearing up for a new contract to begin, so there will be no time for time off for the next few months.

Being the awesome friend she is, that meant today Gayla texted about starting to plan this year’s writers’ vacation. She has an epic idea that involves a cabin in the wilderness, and offers a glimpse of some serious fun and relaxation if I can just make it until then. (Of course, we’re both urban fantasy authors, so while it’s possible we will discuss Kitty’s House of Horrors, I will cross my fingers that plot line doesn’t play out for us… BWAHAHAHAHAHA). I suppose that glimmer is what will have to keep me putting one foot in front of another for a while.

On that note, we managed to walk every day but Thursday, sometimes multiple times in the day, and racked up 11 miles. We’re mostly fitting these jaunts in 15-25-minute segments since Kou is still only 4 months old–and it’s been cold and icy enough here that taking a fall on slick sidewalks is a good possibility if we don’t stick to well-trodden paths. I didn’t write at all this week–aside from some interesting assignments at work.

I was notified that my qualifications were reviewed and found appropriate, so it’s time to start studying systematically for the PMP exam. I cracked the books a few times, but would be hard-pressed to go beyond the superficialities of the five process groups (initiating, planning, executing, monitoring & controlling, and closing) versus the ten project knowledge areas (integration management, scope management, time management, cost management, quality management, communications management, risk management, procurement management, and stakeholder management). We’ll see where the intersection of exhaustion recovery and brain power intersects, but at this point I somehow doubt I’ll make my self-imposed March deadline to pass the certification.

We’re finally organized enough that I posted some things on eBay, too, which also takes time and attention… If anyone wants to help put me out of that misery, go ahead and make a buy-it-now offer so I can take this task off my plate…

:D

Otherwise, I’m crossing my fingers for a somewhat quiet week as hubs and I come up on our 17th wedding anniversary. Maybe we’ll get back to that stay-at-home date night idea. Or I’ll take a day off before work gets really crazy. I’m definitely thinking a break would be a good thing at this point. In the meantime, check out how the other ROW80ers are doing, and I’ll be back next week to report on my mental and emotional health. :P

Yearning for Simplicity

Life was simpler when we did things "Just Because".I’m sick of emergencies and bad news. This week we learned a cousin has stage 4, inoperable, metastasized cancer, and one of mom’s dogs had to be hospitalized with extremely enlarged lymph nodes that were resulting in explosions from both ends–initially also diagnosed as cancer. So there have been more, long family phone conversations, and even less time for writing. Not to sound too self-centered amidst the tragedy… but, honestly, a weekly emergency/big-deal-event of one dire kind or another for the past four months will wear a gal out. And make the latest seem comparably less important since a body only has the capacity to respond with urgency to only so many “sky is falling” messages.

I may have reached that calloused/jaded space where I’m going to start telling people to get in line, because I need me/quiet time.

Yes. I’m a horrible person. Or an introvert. And once again have the sore, scratchy throat and green snot that tell me I’m getting sick. Again. Probably from lack of down time.

:(

It’s a vicious cycle. I’m considering contributing to the iTest Indiegogo funding round to get access to a neat tech tool to keep track of these personal health challenges. Or jump in mud puddles “just because” it’s fun to splash. (Thanks, Zen to Zany, for the smile!)

On the other hand we walked every day last week, for a total of more than 8 miles (including some inadvertent splashing that meant doggie clean-ups were necessary…). I submitted my qualifications for the PMP certification as that necessary first step. Even if we haven’t gotten a chance to watch a movie or a show, with all the necessary discussions about family disasters, I do feel like I’ve at least gotten quality time with hubs. And while I didn’t get 5 days of writing, or make the days’ goals when I did, I still added 1,184 words to Red Slaves 3. And discovered my mentor has personal recollections of North and South Korea that are pertinent to my fiction, so gleaned some of those details from him. (And added The Aquariums of Pyongyang to my TBR book case…)

So I’ll celebrate baby steps, take a deep breath, and hope for better this week. Hubs gave me hope for the new year starting with the Chinese New Year (Feb. 19) that the energetics will shift to something more closely aligned with my needs (home is, indeed, where the heart is!). He’s also so attuned to me, that he forwarded me a reminder of things to do for me to … de-whelm myself (if you’ll forgive a coinage). Even if you find “empath” or “sensitive person” too woo-woo as a description of the people for whom these practices are a good idea, I submit anyone benefits from the grounding recommended. And for introverts, “me time” is critical, regardless. So my biggest gratitude of the day is for hubs and my furbabies, and the fact that they help me connect to the most important parts of my life.

So I’ll once again urge you to check in with the other writers of the ROW80 crew to see how they’re doing on their goals… and return next week, I hope, with less to be overwhelmed by.

Constant Change

"The only thing that is constant is change." -HeraclitusI’ve always loved this quote from Heraclitus for its clever play on words to expose a profound truth. And it seems this week has been a reminder of the need to retain the bigger picture while understanding that sometimes, there’s just no way around the adjustments life is forcing you to make. It’s just slightly more challenging as an INFJ, because “HAZ GOALZ!”.

Basically, we were back to errand-running and social and family obligations that meant I didn’t get to write as much as I’d planned. The family news oddities also kept on coming, making life in Wisconsin seem even more like one tragedy after another. Somehow, even the weather conspired to keep us mostly house-bound–which meant a lot of muddy pawprint clean-up, too. So I’ve re-edited Red Slaves 3 and added another 651 words. We took a handful of walks, but didn’t meet that goal, either.

On the other hand, I got both a stay-at-home date night, and some reading time. We’re all caught up with Agent Carter, and I have to say… it’s gripping in some unexpected ways. Carrie Vaughn had blogged about the preview of this almost a year ago exactly, which I had mostly forgotten in the meantime, but I feel like this TV mini-series does an amazing job of highlighting the tension between being good at and qualified for a job, and being relegated to second fiddle just because of one’s demographic status. The British snarkisms are on par with Doctor Who, and the characterizations these actors are achieving are nuanced and engaging. Even the blockheads’.

;)

This all has me thinking in other ways about feminism and the things the movement achieved since the 40s, which also inform my own work. Pile on with the article earlier this week about the study of what kinds of questions lead to deeper intimacy between two strangers that enhances the likelihood they’ll fall in love, and I have some interesting thoughts brewing on my protagonist. In fact, I just uncovered a plot twist earlier today, which appears to be helping me move through the midpoint of my story.

I don’t know whether next week will be a whole lot better, despite the bonus of having tomorrow off for a Federal holiday, but I should at least have my PMP application submitted for review. Work is gearing up for a busy few months, so I’m crossing my fingers that I’ll have the mental energy to pick up the pace on my writing to keep up with my goals despite having been derailed this week. I also have review fodder for further down the road on the blog, to meet that goal.

In the meantime, don’t forget to check on the other ROW80ers and offer them kudos or support as needed. I’ll be back again next week with another update.