Books Read in May

Amber House (Amber House, #1)

I am J – Cris Beam. An excellent book on transgender FTM teen, J, and his quest for acceptance and finding himself. Read for the LGBT-read-a-thon.

Timeless – Alexandra Monir. A time travel YA fantasy/romance. Afraid it wasn’t quite my thing.

The Crane Wife – Patrick Ness. I love Ness’s writing to pieces, but this one didn’t quite work for me, either. I didn’t like any of the characters. Still gorgeously written, though.

The Falconer – Elizabeth May. Are you jealous? You should be! I’m friends with Elizabeth May so I got a sneaky peek at this highly-anticipated fantasy. And it’s very, very good.

One of Us: Conjoined Twins and the Future of Normal – Alice Domurat Dreger. Dreger wrote another book on the history of intersex conditions, Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex, so I was interested in her other work. Very good insight into how conjoined twins and other people of atypical anatomy view themselves versus how the medical field and society view them. Lots to think about. I’ll do a more in-depth review at some point for a Random Research blog post, since I’m thinking of picking up that blog series again.

Amber House – Kelly Moore, Larkin Reed, Tucker Reed. I find it sweet it was co-written between a mother and her two daughters. Set in a big house with secrets in North Carolina, it has a great Southern Gothic feel. I didn’t find it remotely creepy, but enjoyed it a lot.

Blood & Guts: A Short History of Medicine – Roy Porter. Pretty self-explanatory. Research for a book. May feature in a Random Research post later.

Haunted Castle of Scotland – Martin Coventry. More book research! Takes an in-depth look at the Green, White, Grey, and other coloured ladies rumoured to haunt castles around the country, as well as looking at how they might tie into Celtic myths and history. Also mentions phantom pipers, bloody lairds, secret skeletons, and all manner of creepy goodness. May feature in a Random Research post later.

Random Research: Magic, 1400s-1950s

Magic, 1400s to 1950s – edited by Mike Caveney, Jim Steinmeyer, Ricky Jay, Noel Daniel

Product description (from Amazon):

The scientists of showbiz. Magic has enchanted humankind for millennia, evoking terror, laughter, shock and amazement. Once persecuted as heretics and sorcerers, magicians have always been conduits to a parallel universe of limitless possibility – whether invoking spirits, reading minds, or inverting the laws of nature by sleight of hand. Long before science fiction, virtual realities, video games, and the Internet, the craft of magic was the most powerful fantasy world man had ever known. As the true pioneers of special effects in human history, magicians have never ceased to mystify by perpetually making the impossible possible. This book celebrates 500 years of the dazzling visual culture of the world’s greatest magicians. Featuring over 1,000 rarely seen vintage posters, photographs, handbills, and engravings in one 640-page volume, it traces the history of magic as a performing art from the 1470s through the post-WWII years. Through sensational images and clear and insightful accompanying text, “Magic” explores the evolution of the magician’s craft, from its early street performers to the brilliant stage magicians who gave rise to early cinematic special effects; from the 19th century’s “Golden Age of Magic” to groundbreaking daredevils like Houdini and the vaudevillians of the early 20th century.

Review and Response:

I bought Taschen’s giant circus book when revising Pantomime (see review here). I found it incredibly helpful and really wanted this book, but damn if it wasn’t expensive. When I got my book deal, my husband bought it for me as a congratulations present for my sequel. Well-played, husband, well-played.

I thought the Circus book was big. This one is even more gigantic–clocking in at 16 pounds and around 650 oversized pages. I could weight-lift with this thing. I could hit someone with it and do some serious damage.

The book is separated into subsections:

Foreword: Wizards of Wonder

Introduction: To Please and Cheat the Sight

Chapter 1: Conjuring Life and Death: The Essence of Illusion

Chapter 2: Devilish Deception: The Origins of Wonder

Chapter 3: From Black Magic to Modern Magic

Chapter 4: The Supernatural and the Spirit Worlds

Chapter 5: Masters of the Golden Age

Chapter 6: The Great Touring Shows

Chapter 7: Chains, Blades, Bullets, and Fire: Daring and Danger in Magic

Chapter 8: Magic in Vaudeville and Nightclubs

As with the Circus book, each Chapter was in English, German, and French, along with all the captions of the photos. The essays are well-written and give insight into overarching trends in the history of magic. So many magicians had different personalities and styles. This book touches on both the ones well-remembered today–Houdini, Thurston, Kellar, Carter–and some of the lesser-known ones, like Ionia. The lithographic posters are extraordinarily lovely, and some have two-page spreads. Some of them are quite rare. This book is absolutely gorgeous, and if you’re a magic afficianado, it’s a must-read to have a clearer idea of how magicians have evolved over the years to reflect the cultural zeitgeist. Through the years, we’ve grown more cynical, and the audience became increasingly aware that magicians were fooling us, but enjoying the tricks all the same.

Image from Erin Morgenstern’s blog

Want to see more magic stuff? Check out my Pinterest boards – Magic Posters and Magic Photography.

So Many Books, so Little Time

I’m drowning in books I want to read. But as I’m ploughing through my draft as quickly as I can manage, I’ve had less time to read. But here’s the stuff I’m currently trying to make time for. All product descriptions are ganked from Amazon.

1. My friends’ books. I’ve a bunch of talented friends. Here’s a few I need to get through sooner rather than later. I’ve got a lot more friend’s books to get through, but here’s a sample of ones I’ve bought lately.

The Alchemist of SoulsAnne Lyle

Summary:When Tudor explorers returned from the New World, they brought back a name out of half-forgotten Viking legend: skraylings. Red-sailed ships followed in the explorers’ wake, bringing Native American goods – and a skrayling ambassador – to London. But what do these seemingly magical beings really want in Elizabeth I’s capital?

Mal Catlyn, a down-at-heel swordsman, is seconded to the ambassador’s bodyguard, but assassination attempts are the least of his problems. What he learns about the skraylings and their unholy powers could cost England her new ally – and Mal Catlyn his soul.

Why I’ll read it: This book ticks so many of my literary boxes: alternate humans with an alien culture, Elizabethan setting, psychic powers, swashbuckling, spies, a girl dressed as a boy, and a theatre setting. Yes, please. I’ve beta-read the sequel MS, so it’ll be really interesting to see how the early strings fit together, as I never read series out of order.

AngelmakerNick Harkaway

Summary: From the acclaimed author of The Gone-Away World – a new riveting action spy thriller, blistering gangster noir, and howling absurdist comedy: a propulsively entertaining tale about a mobster’s son and a retired secret agent who are forced to team up to save the world.

All Joe Spork wants is a quiet life. He repairs clockwork and lives above his shop in a wet, unknown bit of London. The bills don’t always get paid and he’s single and has no prospects of improving his lot, but at least he’s not trying to compete with the reputation of Mathew “Tommy Gun” Spork, his infamous criminal dad.

Edie Banister lives quietly and wishes she didn’t. She’s nearly ninety and remembers when she wasn’t. She’s a former superspy and now she’s… well… old. Worse yet, the things she fought to save don’t seem to exist anymore, and she’s beginning to wonder if they ever did.

When Joe fixes one particularly unusual device, his life is suddenly upended. The client? Unknown. And the device? It’s a 1950s doomsday machine. And having triggered it, Joe now faces the wrath of both the government and a diabolical South Asian dictator, Edie’s old arch-nemesis. With Joe’s once-quiet world now populated with mad monks, psychopathic serial killers, scientific geniuses and threats to the future of conscious life in the universe, he realises that the only way to survive is to muster the courage to fight, help Edie complete a mission she gave up years ago, and pick up his father’s old gun…

Why I’ll read it: It has clockwork bees! Sold. Sounds almost like a contemporary steampunk spy thriller with an old lady. Awesome. And even if I hadn’t met the charming Harkaway at Eastercon this year, this amazing review by Patrick Ness would have sold me as well, and I’ve heard nothing but good things about it.

The TestimonyJames Smythe

Summary: A global thriller presenting an apocalyptic vision of a world on the brink of despair and destruction.

What would you do if the world was brought to a standstill? If you heard deafening static followed by the words ‘MY CHILDREN, DO NOT BE AFRAID’?

Would you turn to God? Declare it an act of terrorism? Subscribe to the conspiracy theories? Or put your faith in science and a rational explanation?

The lives of all twenty-six people in this account are affected by the message. Most because they heard it. Some because they didn’t.

The Testimony – a gripping story of the world brought to its knees and of its people, confused and afraid.

Why I’ll read it: The book is told from a global perspective, flipping between peoples’ different testimonies, with some appearing more than others. I find that a really intriguing concept and want to see how it works. Plus, it sounds damn cool.

Also, I couldn’t mess with the visual symmetry of 3 books in each category or it’d drive me batty, but an honourary 4th shout-out to The Rising by Will Hill, the sequel to the best-selling Department 19, which I plan to buy.

2. Books by People I Don’t Know. 

Indigo SpringsA. M. Dellamonica

Summary: Indigo Springs is a sleepy town where things seem pretty normal . . . until Astrid’s father dies and she moves into his house. She discovers that for many years her father had been accessing the magic that flowed, literally, in a blue stream beneath the earth, leaking into his house. When she starts to use the liquid “vitagua” to enchant everyday items, the results seem innocent enough: a “’chanted” watch becomes a charm that means you’re always in the right place at the right time; a “’chanted” pendant enables the wearer to convince anyone of anything . . .

But as events in Indigo Springs unfold and the true potential of vitagua is revealed, Astrid and her friends unwittingly embark on a journey fraught with power, change, and a future too devastating to contemplate. Friends become enemies and enemies become friends as Astrid discovers secrets from her shrouded childhood that will lead her to a destiny stranger than she could have imagined . . .

Why I’ll read it: A.M. Dellamonica has been making the blog rounds recently with her upcoming sequel, Blue Magic. I really enjoyed her discussions of gender in this article especially. I’m interested by the idea of “ecofantasy,” and Dellamonica looks like she’s experimenting with form. Very excited to read this book and its sequel.

City of DragonsRobin Hobb

Summary: Once, dragons ruled the Rain Wilds, tended by privileged human servants known as Elderlings. But a series of cataclysmic eruptions nearly drove these magnificent creatures to extinction. Born weak and deformed, the last of their kind had one hope for survival: to return to their ancient city of Kelsingra. Accompanied by a disparate crew of untested young keepers, the dragons embarked on a harsh journey into the unknown along the toxic Rain Wild River. Battling starvation, a hostile climate, and treacherous enemies, dragons and humans began to forge magical connections, bonds that have wrought astonishing transformations for them all. And though Kelsingra is finally near, their odyssey has only begun.

Because of the swollen waters of the Rain Wild River, the lost city can be reached only by flight—a test of endurance and skill beyond the stunted dragons’ strength. Venturing across the swift-running river in tiny boats, the dragon scholar Alise and a handful of keepers discover a world far different from anything they have ever known or imagined. Immense, ornate structures of black stone veined with silver and lifelike stone statues line the silent, eerily empty streets. Yet what are the whispers they hear, the shadows of voices and bursts of light that flutter and are gone? And why do they feel as if eyes are watching them?

The dragons must plumb the depths of their ancestral memories to help them take flight and unlock the secrets buried in Kelsingra. But enemies driven by greed and dark desires are approaching. Time is running out, not only for the dragons but for their human keepers as well.

Why I’ll read it: If you know me at all, you know I’m a huge Hobb fangirl. Her books are one of the biggest influences of my writing and I just love sinking into the worlds she creates. I probably won’t get to this one for awhile, as I’m currently re-reading the Tawny Man trilogy and will want to re-read The Dragon Keeper and Dragon Haven as well. 2012 is my year of reading a lot of Hobb, it seems!

FleshmarketNicola Morgan

Summary: Fleshmarket is set in the 1820s in Edinburgh, a city of cruel contrasts between the lives of the rich and poor, and home to the infamous Burke and Hare, who sold their murder victims to brilliant anatomist Dr Robert Knox. This is the often harrowing story of a boy who must survive the pain of his mother’s death at the hands of Doctor Knox.

Why I’ll read it: Burke and Hare is featuring obliquely in an upcoming novel of mine, so it’s technically research. But I’ve also seen Nicola Morgan’s articles floating about the internet, and it looks like an excellent, interesting read.

3. Non-fiction Books.

Prague in Black and Gold – Peter Demetz

Summary: From the Velvet Revolution to the disturbing world of Franz Kafka, from the devastation of the Thirty Years War to the musical elegance of Mozart and Dvorak, Prague is steeped in a wealth of history and culture. “Prague In Black And Gold” is a first class history of this unique city, allowing us to unravel layer upon layer of startlingly symbolic sites and buildings to reveal the real Prague. ‘”Prague In Black And Gold” is an exceptional work – and exceptionally reliable …I am sure that this will be an important and exciting guide for all who wish to learn more about the famous people and important events in the history of the Czech lands and their capital’.

Why I’ll read it: Research for a book I’m outlining that will most likely be set in Prague. Looks like I’ll have to visit Prague at some point as well–the trials of being a writer, honestly. ;)

Delusions of Gender – Cordelia Fine

Summary: It’s the twenty-first century, and although we tried to rear unisex children—boys who play with dolls and girls who like trucks—we failed. Even though the glass ceiling is cracked, most women stay comfortably beneath it. And everywhere we hear about vitally important “hardwired” differences between male and female brains. The neuroscience that we read about in magazines, newspaper articles, books, and sometimes even scientific journals increasingly tells a tale of two brains, and the result is more often than not a validation of the status quo. Women, it seems, are just too intuitive for math; men too focused for housework.

Drawing on the latest research in neuroscience and psychology, Cordelia Fine debunks the myth of hardwired differences between men’s and women’s brains, unraveling the evidence behind such claims as men’s brains aren’t wired for empathy and women’s brains aren’t made to fix cars. She then goes one step further, offering a very different explanation of the dissimilarities between men’s and women’s behavior. Instead of a “male brain” and a “female brain,” Fine gives us a glimpse of plastic, mutable minds that are continuously influenced by cultural assumptions about gender.

Passionately argued and unfailingly astute, Delusions of Gender provides us with a much-needed corrective to the belief that men’s and women’s brains are intrinsically different—a belief that, as Fine shows with insight and humor, all too often works to the detriment of ourselves and our society.

Why I’ll read it: I’m extremely interested in gender studies, and my friend Lorna recommended this to me.

Ghosts, Apparitions and Poltergeists: An Exploration of the Supernatural through History – Brian Righi

Summary:

Skeletal remains rotting behind cellar walls, temple priests removing brains with iron hooks, phantom locomotives roaring across midnight plains—Brian Righi isn’t making this stuff up. The ghost stories he finds in history are far more chilling than any Hollywood horror scene.

Join the seasoned paranormal investigator on a tour through mankind’s millennium-old obsession with death and the afterlife. Ghosts, Apparitions and Poltergeistssurveys 4,000 years of hauntings and ghost huntings—from the embalming rituals of ancient Egypt to the Ouija boards and séances of nineteenth century Spiritualism—highlighting a few outlandish tales and colorful characters along the way.

Why I’ll Read it: A bit of research for the WIP and for another book I’m planning. I’ve always been fascinated by ghosts, even though I’m a skeptic at heart.

 

Random Research: The Giant Circus Book

For this week, I’m sharing the book that has been wickedly helpful for my book set in a circus.

The Circus Book – Linda Granfield et al (Taschen, 2010)

Product Description from Amazon:

During its heyday, the American circus was the largest show-biz industry the world had ever seen. From the mid-1800s to mid-1900s, traveling American circuses performed for audiences of up to 14,000 per show and crisscrossed the country on 20,000 miles of railroad in one season alone. The spectacle of death-defying daredevils and strapping super-heroes gripped the American imagination, outshining theater, comedy, and minstrel shows of the day, and ultimately paving the way for film and television. The circus offered young Americans the dream of adventure and reinvention. This book brings to life the grit and glamour of the circus phenomenon. Images include photographic gems by early circus photographers Frederick Whitman Glasier and Edward Kelty, many of the earliest color photographs ever taken of the circus from the 1940s and 1950s, iconic circus photographs by Mathew Brady or Cornell Capa, and little-known circus images by Stanley Kubrick and Charles and Ray Eames. For the first time, contemporary readers can experience the legend of the American circus in all its glory.

Me with the Circus Book. Note that I am 6 feet tall, so it's not like I'm super petite.

Firstly, this book is absolutely massive. It’s definitely a book that can only be read at home.  It’s also extremely heavy. This is not something you can cart around with you, unless you want some decidedly odd looks on the street. And a good workout.

The book is divided into different subsections:

Introduction: Something Wicked This Way Comes

Chapter 1: Worldwide Roots of Circus: Invention, Performance, and Play

Chapter 2: Wonders of the World Await You

Chapter 3: Venuses of the Age: The Female Performer Emancipated

Chapter 4: Strange Beasts from Foreign Lands

Chapter 5: Circus Acts: Controlled Mayhem to Dazzle and Delight

Chapter 6: Eating Fire, Throwing Knives: Freaks & Wonders of the Sideshow

Chapter 7: Tent City: Backstage at the Circus

Chapter 8: Seconds from Death: Risking Life & Limb for the Crowd

Each essay is also translated into French and German, but the hundreds of photographs are captioned in all three languages. I speak French passably well and German rather poorly, so it was also a chance to practice my language skills. Bonus!

But this book was absolutely extraordinary and showcases why print books will never leave us entirely: this is a work of art. It’s solidly made and the colour plates are fantastic. The photographs and old circus artwork truly brought the circus to life. There are plenty of full-page spreads and a good range of time periods, though there’s a bit more of the more recently 1940s-1950s than the 1870s, for instance.

The essays were also extremely helpful, especially the chapters about the freak shows and the daily life in the circus, as most of my other research focused far more on the acts and their social significance than the day-to-day details of living in a nomadic circus. I loved the candid photos of circus folk laughing and fooling around on the back lot to pass the time between shows. I also really enjoyed reading about how the circus was a way for the audience to learn and experience foreign lands, and nevermind that most of the people in the fantastic costumes were not from the land they pretended to be.

Of all the research I’ve done in the circus, this was the source that best showcased the wonder and magic the circus evokes.

I desperately, desperately want the Taschen book on magic, but it’s £98 on Amazon, whereas the Circus book was only £27. I keep hoping it will go on sale because I know it’ll be invaluable for my sequel. If it doesn’t, I’ve decided that if I sell my first book, I’m buying this as a well-deserved treat. Maybe I’ll be able to write it off my taxes, heh.

Random Research: Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex – Alice Domurat Dreger

This was the book that changed everything for me.

I was 19 when I first came up with the idea for my novel–the world, its history, and my main character. I decided that my protagonist could be intersex. I knew next to nothing about intersex people or the difficulties many of them faced and I realised that. So I used my university’s fantastic library resource and requested this book and another (Intersex by Catherine Harper, which I’ll make an entry about some time in the future) to learn more about the subject. Now, granted, I haven’t read this book since 2007, so the review will be rather fuzzy on exact details.

Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex highlights the history of clinical management of people with DSDs. The Victorian era was when gender disorders came under medical scrutiny, and there was a fascination with “monstrous hermaphrodites.” Doctors were obsessed with discovering what someone’s “true sex” was meant to be and ensuring that the patient’s gender conformed to this perceived judgement. Before the Victorian era, those with atypical genitals were displayed, but in the 19th century, science had advanced enough that doctors felt they could “fix” them. Many people with DSDs were photographed for medical texts, their faces never visible. Dreger tells the stories of the people behind the medical photos, as much as she is able.  Herculine Barbin, for instance, who was born with male psuedohermaphroditism, suffered a tragic end.

Though rather jargon-heavy and a bit repetitive from what I remember, this was an excellent resource and opened my eyes to how people who didn’t fit the gender binary were treated in Victorian times, and it was one of the books that made me realise I had a story that I needed to tell.

Random Research: The Circus and Victorian Society – Brenda Assael

I do a fair amount of research for my books, most notably on: Victorian society, the circus, magicians, Victorian medicine and science, gender studies and sexuality, and various postulations on the future of architecture, technology, weapons, et cetera. I figured that once or twice a week, I’ll post a bit about some sort of research I’ve done–a short book review of a book I’ve read, podcasts I’ve found inspiring, links and photos, what have you. As I’m always researching, I’ll always have plenty to share.

This week I’m posting a review of a book I first read several years ago, and have recently been flipping through to refresh my memory.

The Circus and Victorian Society

The Circus and Victorian Society – Brenda Assael – 168 pages (5 stars) 

When I first started researching my novel, I was not sure if there would be any books about circuses and Victorian society…but thankfully Brenda Assael, a history professor in Wales, wrote about just that. It’s an amazingly well-researched book that clearly lays out how the circus integrated itself into Victorian culture and played upon its imagination and fears.

The introduction gives an overview of the beginnings of the circus from the fairgrounds into lavish, fixed affairs in amphitheatres. The line between high theatre and the circus became blurred, and those from the highest to the lowest class enjoyed them all just the same.

Each chapter afterwards focuses on a specific aspect of the circus and then links it to Victorian society. First, Assael focuses on equestrian shows and trick riding, and how the elaborate staged battles paralleled the growing patriotic spirit as England became a world power. Next, she focuses on clowns, who were often sad, destitute, and on the lowest rung of the circus performers’ hierarchy. The last section focuses on women and children performers—specifically the sexual threat of women in their costumes and earning their own way, and the fight against children performers in the Industrial Era.

Throughout its formation, the circus has been both loved and despised by the public. It was hugely successful, but that success made it dangerous and various sects have tried to shut it down due to their perceived lack of morality of the circus. While a little pricey for the casual researcher, this book was an excellent insight into the role of the circus in Victorian society and well worth the read if the subject interests you.