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Book cover of Gone Crazy in Alabama by Rita Williams-Garcia

Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern are off to Alabama to visit their grandmother, Big Ma, and her mother, Ma Charles. Across the way lives Ma Charles's half sister, Miss Trotter. The two half sisters haven't spoken in years. As Delphine hears about her family history, she uncovers the surprising truth that's been keeping the sisters apart. But when tragedy strikes, Delphine discovers that the bonds of family run deeper than she ever knew possible. (Source)

Both Ana and I reviewed One Crazy Summer, the first of Rita Williams-Garcia's books about the three Gaither sisters, their Pa, Grandma (Big Ma) and their activist mother. Join us as we (sadly) see the trilogy finish up and co-review the final book, Gone Crazy in Alabama.

Read more... )
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Today we're excited to welcome [tumblr.com profile] justira to Lady Business to talk about Agent Carter! Ira is a kickass illustrator, writer, and web developer who gained their powers by consuming the bones of their enemies. They make art, comics, and writing when they are not distracted by way too many video games. You can find more of Ira's work at their tumblr.

So (this season of) Agent Carter is over and one of the most interesting bits of noise to emerge from the finale — besides, of course, the speculation over renewal and, less positively, continued criticism of the show's lack of racial diversity — is the furor over a possibly bisexual Howard Stark. But why are we (again) so excited about a white dude and his feels on a show that is, for once, explicitly about a woman? Well, let's take a look, because we're going to cover Peggy/Angie, Steve Rogers/Sam Wilson, love interest roles, Captain America: The First Avenger retcons, and sites of transgression — but most of all, we're going to talk about how much heteronormativity blows. Spoilers for Agent Carter and both Captain America movies below!

Peggy and Howard face off.

Read more... )
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Cover at for PS Be Eleven by Rita-Williams Garcia, showing three black girls skipping rope on a city street, wearing 1960s style bell-bottom jeans

After spending the summer in Oakland with their mother and the Black Panthers, Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern arrive home with a newfound streak of independence, and the sisters aren't the only ones who have changed. Now Pa has a girlfriend. Uncle Darnell returns from Vietnam a different man. But Big Ma still expects Delphine to keep her sisters in line. That's much harder now that Vonetta and Fern refuse to be bossed around. Besides her sisters, Delphine's got plenty of other things to worry about-like starting sixth grade, being the tallest girl in her class, and dreading the upcoming school dance (her first). The one person she confides in is her mother, Cecile. Through letters, Delphine pours her heart out and receives some constant advice: to be eleven while she can.

Jodie: Even though we didn't co-review One Crazy Summer I think we're united in our feelings about Rita Williams-Garcia's first Gaither Sisters book. Loved, loved, loved it! You recently said 'it's a story that makes room for several simultaneous truths', and the way the book validated both Delphine and Cecile's feelings absolutely swept me away.

Did you have any particular hopes, dreams and expectations going into the sequel, P.S. Be Eleven because of the way One Crazy Summer developed? Moar words )
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Illustration of a girl suspended in the sky above tall factory buildings. Her hair and skirt are on fire, and her head is bowed. She holds a long piece of red thread in one hand.

In America, they don’t let you burn. My mother told me that.

Jodie: Ana, you read "Burning Girls" a while ago and then suggested it might be a good piece for us to discuss together in a Short Business post. Was there one aspect of this story that you were excited to talk about first?

Ana: First of all, I thought that like me you might be interested in the way "Burning Girls" combines history with fairy tale elements. Reading The Girls at the Kingfisher Club recently was a reminder of how much I love that sort of thing, so it was great to revisit a story that does something along the same general lines.
Spoilers behind the cut )


Jul. 18th, 2014 11:11 am
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[personal profile] bookgazing

"Belle" is yet another answer to a common internet cry. Have you been longing for a period film which shows that chromatic people in history occupied a diverse range of roles? Well, Amma Asante’s "Belle" may just be what you’re looking for.

"Belle" was inspired by a painting of real life cousins Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay and Elizabeth Murray. The painting originally hung at Kenwood House, where the real life Dido was sent by John Lindsay, her white father, in the 1765. Her father’s uncle the Earl of Hampstead, was the Lord Chief Justice of England at the time and he resided at Kenwood with his wife.

"Belle" presents a fictionalised version of Dido’s life at Kenwood. In the film Dido, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, is the equal of her cousin. Although her parents were unmarried and she is of mixed race, she is acknowledged as a Lindsay by her father. When he leaves, she is cherished by her great uncle and aunt, and is encouraged to call them Papa and Mama. And when John Lindsay unfortunately dies at sea she becomes a wealthy, independent heiress.

Read more... )

Other Reviews

The Close Historian
The Guardian
Roger Ebert
The London Film Review
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book cover for The Lie shows a young soldier holding staring at his hat in his hands and a scene of another soldier standing by barbed wire in No Man's Land

Cornwall, 1920, early spring.

A young man stands on a headland, looking out to sea. He is back from the war, homeless and without family.

Behind him lie the mud, barbed-wire entanglements and terror of the trenches. Behind him is also the most intense relationship of his life.1

Daniel has survived, but the horror and passion of the past seem more real than the quiet fields around him.

He is about to step into the unknown. But will he ever be able to escape the terrible, unforeseen consequences of a lie?

God, I am so sick of publishers using book blurb code for LGBTQ books. There are gay soldiers in "The Lie", OK? This happens:

'We were laughing. He was hauling me up. We staggered together and I could smell the drink on him as well as on me. I felt drunker than I'd been all night. I don't know what happened then except our faces must have got close. I tasted my own blood and then his mouth, his spit and the taste I seemed to know already because I knew the smell of him so well. Him, himself, as if we'd come out of the same womb. How good he tasted. We were no use on our own, either of us. If I was ever going to be myself I needed him.'

Gay soldiers.2

Read more... )

Other Reviews

The Telegraph
The Guardian
The Historical Novel Society
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Picture of The Bletchley Circle main cast from series one and two

I know, I know - it seems like only yesterday I was trying to convince you to get your heart broken by investing in a kick-ass TV program that was cancelled far too early. And here I am poking you to watch another cancelled series that has absolutely no hope of being revived. Quit it, Jodie, you say, just quit it.

I think I can win you round though. Yes, even though there are only seven episodes to watch. Yes, even though the actress playing the protagonist left half way through the second series. Yes, even though – look, are we going to have a problem here?!

Anyway, here are five good reasons why I you think I should latch on to "The Bletchley Circle".

Read more... )
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Set in the 14th century, "The White Queen" follows the many fascinating royal and noble women caught up in the dynastic struggles between the houses of Lancaster and York. If you enjoy settling down to a period drama, but are tired of watching various actors parade around as the murderous and lecherous Henry VIII, then this fun drama that celebrates the mixed up, disrupted lives of ladies could be just what you’re looking for.

Your text book is full of spoilers too. )

Supplementary Material

"Freedom at 21" (fan-vid)

Other Reviews

Asking the Wrong Questions
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‘One Crazy Summer’ is a simple novel. Rita Williams-Garcia’s story is written in the voice of an uncomplicated, but smart child narrator. It is easy to read, unconcerned with dazzling readers with complex literary techniques.

I expected ‘One Crazy Summer’ to be an interesting way to pass a few hours and a quick read. It was all of those things, but it was also so much more satisfying than those phrases imply. It’s been ages since I finished such an easy to read book, without the feeling of disappointment that comes from having read an average, or forgettable novel. It’s been a while since I’ve been so swept away by a story told using an ordinary narrative voice, without any added literary trickery1.

Delphine, Vonetta and Fern are sent to spend the summer in Oakland with their estranged mother, Cecile, who left just after Fern was born. When the girls arrive it doesn’t take long for them to decide that Cecile is out of her mind crazy. She lives in a bizarre green stuccoed house, with a palm tree outside. She’s changed her name to Nzilla, which confuses Delphine because, in her eyes:

‘A name is important. It isn’t something you drop in the litter basket or on the ground. Your name is how people know you. The very mention of your name makes a picture spring to mind, whether it’s a picture of clashing fists or a mighty mountain that can’t be knocked down. Your name is who you are and how you’re known even when you do something great or something dumb.’

Cecile (as Delphine insists on calling her, despite this new name2) doesn’t cook like a regular mother; she shows no interest in her three children and is prone to mumbling angrily under her breath. When her daughters first arrive she sends the girls (Delphine is the oldest at twelve) through the unfamiliar streets by themselves in the dark to pick up take away food. The next morning she all but kicks them out of the house, so they can get a free breakfast from the People’s Centre, run by the Black Panthers and tells them not to come back until late evening. Cecile is not the mother they’ve all been hoping for; initially she’s even surpasses Delphine’s low expectations.

And Delphine feels she has every right to be cynical about what their mother can possibly offer them. Cecile’s absence has forced Delphine into a mature role at an early age. She spends a lot of time looking after her two sisters and their summer trip at first seems to provide no respite from that role. Vonetta has to be kept in line, fights have to be mediated and Delphine is soon in charge of the cooking after her sisters get sick from too much take away food. Being given such responsibility, apparently by default as the eldest, has given her the (substantiated) idea that she must remain the sensible, diplomatic sister to guide Vonetta and Fern through life, even though she’s only twelve years old herself. It’s unsurprising that Delphine’s narration is full of resentment for Cecile, which she unhealthily suppresses in a surprisingly accomplished, passive aggressive way for someone her age.

As the narrator of ‘One Crazy Summer’, Delphine’s negative feelings about Cecile could easily have made the book a reinforcement of society’s easy, anti-feminist ideas about women who leave their children and don’t appear to love their kids ‘as a mother should’. There’s no doubt that Delphine’s description of Cecile includes many negative comments, but Williams-Garcia also has her character include short memories from Delphine’s childhood to illustrate the restrictions placed on Cecile during her marriage. In one memory Delphine sees the walls of their house being painted over by her Papa. The reader previously learnt that the walls were covered in Cecile’s poetry. Delphine also recalls other moments, like her Papa’s call for ‘ “No more of these made up, different names.” ‘ when Cecile was deciding what to call her third daughter. These incidents show the reader that Cecile may have been battling against repressive forces at home and later her relationship with Delphine’s father is explained a little more, giving the reader insight into why a mother might leave her children, to help herself. Although the reader never fully knows why Cecile left her family it is clear that a clash between her creative, modern personality (she is a poet and a feminist who works with the Black Panthers) and her husband’s desire for her to be a normal mother had something to do with her departure when Fern was tiny.

As Delphine is so young and doesn’t fully understand the significance of the events that she remembers she can still be written as a daughter who feels uncompromising angry at a missing mother, without losing the reader’s sympathy. Delphine could have, like so many other young adult characters, been pushed into a place of false reconciliation, where she had to acknowledge the total validity of Cecile’s feelings and come to feel her own emotions were invalid when judged against issues of wider importance. What so impressed me about ‘One Crazy Summer’ was how skilfully it balanced the need to express Cecile’s valid reasons for leaving her family to the reader, as well as Delphine’s valid sadness at losing a mother, without making either person’s priorities feel less important than the other. I think Angie sums up why the inclusion of this kind of mother/daughter relationship is so interesting when she says:

‘I have certainly never read a children’s book that has a mother like Sister Nzilla – a mother who is neither a villain or a redeemed heroine, but who is person, on her own terms, struggling to find out what it means to be a mother and a free person.’3

The partial reconciliation the two achieve by the end of the book felt realistic, based on the hurts that both of them had experienced. There are no tearful breakdowns in this book, that require one character to reject the reality of their emotional state, but both characters are allowed to come to an understanding of each other, without either being requiring to fold rather than compromise. Instead, a quiet bond grows between Delphine and Cecile towards the end of the novel and their last conversation is a measured discussion about real things. I liked it so much for refusing to ladle on the dramatics.

I was especially interested in the impact of one event that contains no explicit blame (Cecile isn’t even present) but manages to emphasise just what Delphine has lost, by taking on the role of most responsible sister. A trip on a new friends go-cart, allows her to release her childish side as she flies free screaming and laughing downhill:

‘As the go-kart went faster, I felt the rumbling of the wheels hitting the concrete underneath me. I screamed. So loud I startled myself. I had never heard myself scream. Screamed from the top of my lungs, from the pit of my heart. Screamed like I was snaking and falling. Screamed and hiccuped and laughed like my sisters. Like I was having the time of my life, flying down that glorious hill.’

The subtlety of ‘One Crazy Summer’ is, I think, its greatest strength. It’s small details like this moment of fun and the memories I mentioned, that Delphine has about Cecile, that build up into a picture explaining how people feel, and what they’ve faced. These moments are much more effective than a big speech about feminism, or a row about Delphine’s lost years of being a kid. The reader is allowed to make the connection between Cecile’s idea that Delphine could stand to be more selfish and the positive aspects of selfishness, on their own.

There’s a lot more going on in this small novel than the one significant relationship I’ve talked about. The girls get lessons in civil rights, they fight, go on a sightseeing trip and there’s a bit of drama at the end with a police informant at a protest rally. I’ve focused on Delphine and Nzilla because I think they’re the core that the rest of the novel revolves around, but I wonder which part of this novel others were most interested in. Care to share?

Thanks so much to Ana from The Book Smugglers for giving me a copy of this book.

1Unrelated moan: Am I alone in finding a whole range of lauded, but easily accessible adult fiction kind of uninspiring right now? I mean, these books are a fine way to pass a lazy Sunday, but around 250 pages in they start to make me feel sluggish, like I’ve eaten too much roast dinner. When I get to the end I feel like I have very little to say about them.

2 That sets her at odds with her mother who says:‘ “It’s my name. My self. I can name my self. And if I’m not the one I was but am now a new self, why would I call myself by an old name?” ’ There’s quite a bit about the importance of names, placed subtly here and there in this novel, which should delight fantasy fans who are into understanding the power of naming.

3Her blog ‘Fat Girl, Reading’ seems to have unfortunately disappeared while I wasn’t checking blogs : ( (Edit - No it hadn't, thanks to Renay for checking)

Other Reviews

The Book Smugglers
Reading in Color
Colour Online
Fat Girl, Reading

Bonus: Zetta Elliot posted a series of interview questions with Rita Williams Garcia about ‘One Crazy Summer’ last year. Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 are available on her blog.
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Downton Abbey

Friends! I know that for weeks now the two or three of you reading this have been wondering where on earth the long-ago promised part three of my series of posts on the whole issue of showing and telling and balancing aesthetics, good storytelling and social conscientiousness is. Well, the truth is that it’s proving incredibly difficult to write. I knew from the beginning that I would end up with more questions than answers when I was done, but try as I might I can’t give my current collection of questions a shape that makes them worth asking.

I am not giving up, though – just putting it on hold. However, as I’ve been silent here for far too long, I thought I’d do something a little different today and tell you about my most recent addiction – Downton Abbey. My being hooked on this series is a direct consequence of the first ever periodical (hey, one can hope) meeting of two thirds of Lady Business, featuring the awesome future LB guest posters Meghan and Ana (this is not in any way a hint *cough*). Our absent one third was of course very much missed, but nevertheless many books were coveted, laughs were shared, Shakespeare was watched, benign gossip was exchanged, good food was consumed, trains were very nearly missed, much fun was had by all, and Downton Abbey was pressed into my eager hands.

Downton Abbey is a period drama focusing on the lives of the Crawley family and the large staff that runs their stately home. The series is set in the years before WWI, which to someone like me gives it immediately appeal. While some of the Crawleys try to figure out whether there’s a way of preventing their home, Lord Grantham’s title and his wife’s considerable fortune from going to an unknown distant relative rather than their eldest daughter, international tensions mount, women fight for the vote, and society inevitable moves towards change. I am now five episodes into the series’ first season, which has a total of seven. I imagine that I’m still in for some surprises, but I feel that by now I have a good grasp of what Downton Abbey is all about.

I’m not sure if I would rank the series among my all-time favourites, but one thing is certain: it’s excellent storytelling, and it constantly has me dying to know what’s going to happen next. As I’m fairly sure is the case with all of you, I’m addicted to story. Although books are my preferred way of satisfying this craving, I’m not at all averse to satisfying it through other media. Thanks to my recent reading slump, I spent months and months without experiencing the delicious thrill of being completely enthralled in a story, and let me tell you, I’d really, really missed it.

Anyway, Downton Abbey is a series whose appeal largely depends on our tendency to romanticise pre-war upper class living – although, as we will see later, this is not an entirely fair comment. I’ve been known to become annoyed with novels that do this, but if I’m to be perfectly honest, I’m by no means immune to the lure of a good country house story myself. All historical periods are romanticised to some extent, so it seems unfair to pick on the early twentieth century in particular. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that most of my social history reading seems to focus on either this period or the Victorian era. Whatever the reason, I tend to roll my eyes at stories that don’t somehow acknowledge its dark underbelly, or at the very least the cost and social implications of this glamorous lifestyle. But of course, the best thing about Downton Abbey is that it actually does.

Downton Abbey does a remarkable job of balancing the romance and glamour of life at a stately home with the social insight that a twentieth-first century audience will undoubtedly have. I don’t think the series is actually particularly revolutionary, in the sense that most of the progressive values it espouses are easy and safe and widely accept in our day and age by people all across the political spectrum (e.g., women should vote. None but a radical fringe would argue with that). But at least there isn’t much about it that is careless or insensitive or dehumanising, unlike other stories of this kind I could mention.

The characters are all fully human regardless of their class or background, and the family’s servants are involved in storylines that are not only interesting in their own right, but don’t always involve their role as servants. Of course, the power dynamics between the upper class and their domestic staff are at the very heart of what Downton Abbey is about, but I was happy to see that the servants are allowed to exist as human beings beyond this. This is tricky to do well, because there were people who, for the sake of financial security and due to a lack of other options, often gave up their right to have lives of their own in the name of their employers’ well-being. The series acknowledges this, but it does so in a way that never really robs them of their humanity (and of course, now I’ve made myself really want to reread The Remains of the Day).

I said above that I didn’t think there was much about Downton Abbey that was insensitive, but there’s an exception to this that made me very, very sad. Why oh why does the one and only main glbtq character have to be so completely evil? (And the one supporting character wasn’t much better, really). I think Downton Abbey does a great job when it comes to representing women, and the main reason for this is the fact that there are so many of them. Because most of the cast is female, they’re allowed to be kind, scheming, competitive, smart, hard-working, lazy, ambitious, snobbish, gentle, thoughtful, competent, clumsy, awkward – you name it. The full spectrum of human emotions, behaviours and motivations is available to them without any ties between the nastier traits and their femininity being implicitly established, because for every example there is a different one to challenge it.

As I’ve said in the past
, ideally this is what would always happen. I think a lot of progress has been on that front when it comes to representing women (although now I occasionally see people complaining when female characters display vulnerability, which… is not the point of feminism. But that’s a subject for a different post). However, glbtq characters are miles behind on this regard. Ideally they should have the full spectrum of human behaviours at their disposal too. There are plenty of glbtq people who are not particularly nice, so why shouldn’t fiction acknowledge this? But. If in a series you have a single token gay character who turns out to be evil, and in addition to this they are very very likely one of a very small number of glbtq characters being represented in the totality of series being aired at that particular point in time, then you do have a problem. Because no matter what the writers intended when they wrote the character, those implicit ties are going to pop up. Their identity and their evilness are going to get interlinked in some people’s minds. There just aren’t enough counterexamples for that not to happen. We can say that those people are READING IT RONG, but the world being what it is, are they really? Can their reading really be disregarded?

As I said, I have not yet finished season one, so it’s possible that I might yet be surprised, either in the two remaining episodes or next season. Also! I had almost forgotten how nice it can be to eat a light dinner in front of the laptop while watching an episode (… or three) of something with M. Series are stories we can share immediately, instead of pressing books/rpgs on each other and waiting a few months or years until the other gets to them so we can finally discuss them. All this to say that if you have further suggestions of things I should watch (other than Inception or Buffy, that is. It WILL happen, Amy and Renay), please throw them at me. I feel clueless when it comes to TV, so I will fully trust your guidance.
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Last year I reviewed a book in a new series by Y S Lee. The first novel ‘A Spy in the House’ begins just as orphan Mary Quinn was being saved from the gallows. She is taken to be educated in a charitable institution, Miss Schrimshaw’s Academy for Girls, ostensibly so that she could earn useful skills and take up a career appropriate for a poor girl. After several years at the Academy it is revealed that an all female spy ring operates out of the academy and Mary is to be recruited for her first mission. While I found the solution to the mystery in the first book a little tricky to unravel I was so happy with the overall book. Spies, romance, proto-feminism, history, and charmingly awkward encounters in a wardrobe…This book is full of all kinds of little touches that made me ridiculously happy.

Last month I finished the second book in the series ‘The Body at the Tower’, which was just as good (and I understood the solution to the mystery this time). I realised I was sad that there was only one more book in the series and that’s when I knew it would happen again. Yes, I would become a book pusher for this series. Are you ready, because here comes the YA evangelism:

Reasons why I am attempting to push ‘The Agency’ series on you

Spies who are ladies: Let’s face it, men have traditionally been given the most adventurous roles, so I love when writers give female characters roles that in the past, belonged exclusively to male characters. I mean, there are problematic side issues that can play into this role reversal, but done well stories where girls go to work in male industries can yield some truly fun results. For me ladies + super secret spying activities = some sort of messy squeeish explosion. James Bond was a pretty big influence on shaping my tastes in cool, but sadly there were no female Bond’s when I was growing up. Girls got to kiss the spy, but rarely did they get to be the ones stealing documents and making roof top getaways.

While Mary is no Bond equivalent and her story is set in Victorian London, ‘The Agency’ series is based around Mary’s induction into a secret organisation of female spies, who use their gender as the ultimate disguise. In Victorian London, patriarchal prejudices guarantee that no one looks at a sensible female companion and suspects her of being a wickedly clever spy. Mary and her colleagues go unnoticed as they carry out their surveillance work, when a man would appear suspicious if he started poking about. This set up, where prejudice makes male society more susceptible to female spies, appeals to my smug, inner feminist. Oh boys, if only you weren’t so damn sexist you’d have seen that sting coming.

I’ve seen people clamour for more female detectives (I totally support this clamour btw, I would even support caterwauling calls), but as yet there just aren’t enough books with a full range of female spies. Y S Lee goes to the top of my author list for adding more female spies to my shelves. And obviously it’s all about me.

Feminist YA: It sounds so negative to say there’s a dearth of well written young adult books that explore feminist issues effectively and explicitly. I don’t mean to say that young adult writers aren’t trying to engage with feminism. There are some really good examples I could cite, such as ‘Flygirl’ by Sheri L Smith, but YA books that grapple with sexist chicanery are definitely still a minority.

So far, ‘The Agency’ series (especially ‘A Spy in the House’) is full of successful feminist critique. The feminist arguments that Mary Quinn uses are well thought out and would withstand tough examination. Y S Lee never lets her story or characters disappear under the feminist commentary, yet at the same time she never compromises her attractive feminist line to further her story. She’s made feminism a vital part of her story in a couple of ways that I’d just like to examine a bit if you’ll come with me.

I guess to an extent I’ve come to see any a female character put out front, as at least a goodwill gesture of pro-female intent from an author. Obviously there are some notable, anti-feminist exceptions to that rule (a certain vampire series which manages to be grindingly female undermining, despite being written from a heroine’s perspective). In general though, if an author is putting girls in books and making them positive characters/heroines/complex human beings who aren’t always nice , rather than setting them up to be doormats/dead/stereotypes/soulless people then that’s great.

Having complex woman take major roles in books is wonderful. The idea that the personal is political is a strong one in our society, so we see a lot of female characters who challenge gender stereotypes, or create female positive spaces, just by presenting themselves to the world in one way or another. Y S Lee contributes to this type of political female representation by including heroines and female spies, in a setting where these kind of female presentations go against stereotypical cultural ideas.

I don’t mean to sound unsatisfied with this type of female representation. The more major female characters appear and the more female characters that present complicated, but essentially anti-sexist fronts the better. I don’t want to seem like I’m underestimating how each heroine contributes to the politics of female representation by showing up, being themselves and working for what they want. At the same time, I sometimes I wish there was also a greater amount books that had their characters explicitly examine sexist and feminist arguments with the words. I’m not trying to advance a value judgment about one aspect of the personal politic (speaking out) being more worthy than another (showing up every day). I just wish we could have both approaches turn up in YA as often as possible.

In ‘the Agency’ series Y S Lee makes Mary a heroine who presents a complex, successful female personality to the reader. By looking at how Mary’s character acts and the career she’s chosen readers can absorb the ideas that girls are capable in roles traditionally taken by men and that realistic female characters can challenge simplistic gender stereotypes. Just by showing up in a novel and acting like a person who is being true to herself, Mary presents a personal politic that advances a female-positive idea. But Lee goes a step further and shows that Mary is capable of elucidating the logical reasons behind the pro-female stance, through conversations like this one:

‘He sighed patronizingly. “When men enlist, they know they are risking their lives. When gently bred young women flock to a military encampment, they not only endanger themselves, they also distract those who must look after them, and who ought to be thinking of other things.”

“And males are only too eager to blame all their shortcomings on the distraction represented by females,” Mary retorted. “As though nurses are the only women in an encampment!” '

Lee includes her kickass, realistic, complex female character and she has Mary argue for her own gender. In doing both she advances two fronts of political, female positive representation.

I understand there’s a tendency for authors to avoid giving their characters arguments to make, because this didactic approach can come off as preachy. I’m usually against the staged conversations, because they’re often poorly inserted into the story. The speech in these conversations can take on an unnatural quality, in much the same way that conversations consisting of world building info dumps sometimes make characters sound oddly formal. Everything characters say in these passages can becomes exceptionally precise, as the author tries to keep their purpose clear and encourage their characters to talk about issues they might naturally avoid.

The conversations in which Lee includes feminist commentary avoid this stiffness because of her skills as a dialogue writer. Some writers just can’t write sustained periods of dialogue that sound natural (to me anyway). I even noted in my review of ‘Spy in the House’ that some of Lee’s own commentary on items of Victorian history, sounds a little obviously teachery, though set piece conversations like the one above sound normal. She also shapes her story into a narrative which invites feminist commentary (Victorian society, where a secret group of female spies solves London’s problems) and gives Mary reason to be female positive (head strong, intelligent girl in patriarchal Victorian society, raised in an all female organisation), which makes it seem natural for Mary to hold and voice views on woman and sexist theories. Crucially, as I said above, Lee never lets the active, moving story get buried under feminist commentary.

Even if didactic arguments are well done, it is arguable that the use of didactic conversations, thoughts, or third person commentary is not appropriate in modern literature. I would argue though that these kinds of conversations don’t just act as instructive tools for the reader. Didactic feminist arguments also act as a way for writers to show women shouting, arguing back and asserting a vocal version of a female personal politic. We have so few novels that focus on traditional feminist activism (of the protest rally, or organised feminist group kind), so novels where women speak their minds and knock down sexist arguments with words seem just as important as novels where women knock down sexist assumptions with their sheer presence. I want more novels where the female characters take up arguments and hurl them loudly at the world around them and I want these arguments to be well done and integrated into novels with skill. Let me hear a cry of: ‘You are demanding!’ Well, I will just be over here with my Y S Lee’s books having my demanding side catered to *cradles books*.

History Geek Out: Y S Lee has all the history facts. All of them. When an author can take a done to death period like Victorian London and teach you new things about it you have to award them some kind of history crown, or possibly a sceptre. I so enjoyed learning about parts of history that were new to me, like details of the community of Lascar sailors that inhabited London’s docks. You can see some of the interesting things Lee knows about Victorian England by looking through her blog tour posts.

Five reasons why the second book ‘The Body at the Tower’ is particularly awesome

Wait, the body is where now?: The mystery concerns a body that was found dead in the ‘cursed’ Big Ben. Freak out with me a little right now history fans! This is a novel where Big Ben has yet to be finished, where the characters were walking around the half completed Big Ben. I mean, that’s almost like time travel to the birth of a great monument. If you don’t understand, I don’t know how to explain, but this is just, wow, I got such a palpable feeling of history being created. I got a sense of great affection for history in the making from this book and a kind of playful deconstruction, which is similar to the feelings that roll of an episode of Dr Who where they travel back in time.

Cross dressing: Heroines dressed as boys is a favourite trope of mine. Mary must infiltrate the building site by posing as a young male labourer Mark Quinn to investigate the death at the tower. What I especially liked about Lee’s use of the cross dressing trope, is that she makes it into something deeper than a very useful and liberating disguise. Mary has posed as a Mark before, to avoid being raped when she lived alone on the streets. Returning to her old disguise brings up issues of identity that threaten Mary’s ability to complete her mission. I like how Lee takes this common trope and makes it individual to her heroine, by adding back story and how this also increases the realism of an almost fantasy situation (girl in repressed society easily escapes restrictions by adopting male dress – problems solved).

Social commentary: ‘The Agency’ books betray an interest in issues of social justice. The focus of the social commentary in ‘The Body at the Tower’ is a little different from that in ‘A Spy in the House’, which focuses on society’s attitudes towards women and Chinese sailors. ‘The Body at the Tower’ spends a lot of time looking at the poverty of many London residents, as Mary returns to places that remind her of the hard life she faced after her mother died. It also looks a little at issues of conflicted identity, as Mary continues to pass in white society but is always recognised as British-Asian by Chinese characters. While racial identity is a (vital) theme I’ve seen explored in a few young adult novels, I haven’t read many young adult novels that deal with poverty, so it was interesting to see Lee dig around in that area of Victorian history.

Lee comments on the specific social injustice of Victorian Britain, rather than setting up historical situations that lead to obvious lessons about modern injustice. Although she avoids leading her reader to direct comparisons about modern day social injustice she makes strong points about what should and shouldn’t be acceptable in any society (sexism, child labour, racial prejudice).

The Romance: The romance between James Easton and Mary was swoon worthy in the first book, but they parted expecting they would never meet again. Then James appears on the building site, weakened from a fever he caught in India. It’s obvious they are in love, but Lee keeps throwing obstacles in their way until…

I never thought I’d topple so hard for James, as he often shows himself to be a smug Victorian male in the first book. However, he’s also just in his twenties, determined to make his business a success and oh so uncertain about life underneath all that arrogant charm. He’s much more vulnerable in ‘The Body in the Tower’ and open about his feelings for Mary. I’m beginning to feel that the more he sees of Mary, the more reconciled he would be to her being her own unconventional person. He wouldn’t push her to fit into the shadows of his life, like the stereotypical Victorian wife. I feel like he’s become a decent partner for Mary over the two books and if she could find a way to fit her life as a spy, with her love for James they would make the best couple. Their relationship is going to work out, or I am going to cry.

Ladies, detecting: Ladies: solving crimes with their minds! It’s like girls are smart or something. Mary is all ‘I will sleuth in my disguise and uncover the crime!’ and she does work capably, but she also makes mistakes, as you’d expect of a new spy. One of my favourite bits of sleuthing comes when Mary has to go to the pub to ‘gather information’ and accidentally gets rather drunk. She isn’t perfect, but she also isn’t rubbish. There are more fruitful, professional spying moments, like the daring night time game of hide and seek at the building site, as she follows a criminal in her search for clues.

‘The Agency’ series is so much fun for fans of mysteries, spies, ladies and Victoriana. Won’t you come and squee with me, before the third (and possibly final, gah, NO) installment comes out in June?

Other Reviews of 'The Body at the Tower'

Reading in Color
A Striped Armchair
The Booksmugglers


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