Thursday, June 30, 2011

Review: A Spy in the House

A Spy in the House (The Agency Series #1)A Spy in the House by Y.S. Lee

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book has been on my radar for some time, but it wasn't until I saw it offered for $1.99 at BN that I decided to go ahead and buy it. My only regret is that I waited so long.

I skimmed through a couple of reviews of this book, and they irritated me. A number of reviewers were annoyed by its lack of realism; apparently they missed the note at the end wherein Y.S. Lee stated, "The Agency is a totally unrealistic, completely fictitious antidote to the fate that would otherwise swallow a girl like Mary Quinn." Who is Mary Quinn? First, that's not her name. She can't live under her real name because she is technically a fugitive, wanted for housebreaking and sentenced to death by hanging. Instead of the rope, she found herself offered a chance at escape and education. Being a smart girl, she took the chance.

Mary is not necessarily a bad girl--she was born and raised in difficult circumstances in 1841. Her father was a sailor and died at sea; her mother was unable to get support from the community and became a prostitute. Mary knows that few choices exist for a girl like her, and she tries to survive in a world that doesn't welcome her. That's why she took to thieving. However, once she is rescued by the school, Mary finds that the education they give her is both helpful and harmful. She is unable to be content in the jobs available to women, and the feminist principles she learned at the school make her dislike the idea of relying upon a man for support either as a wife or mistress.

Educated and unsatisfied, Mary is offered another choice, and this one speaks to her desire for agency within her own life. She is offered the opportunity to investigate for Scotland Yard. The book calls her "a spy in the house," but "spy" isn't really an adequate job title for what Mary Quinn does. She's more of an investigator, seeking evidence to prosecute her supposed employers--the Thorold family where she works as a paid companion for the daughter, Angelica. While she is looking for information for Scotland Yard, they hired her through an intermediary service--the Agency--and are unaware of her identity.

Y.S. Lee clearly knows Victorian England--she has a Ph.D. in Victorian Literature and Culture. Lee's knowledge of the setting helps her to build a believable portrait of London--and the incredibly filthy and foul smelling Thames--but she never creates info dumps. All of the information she provides about London seems an organic part of the plot and serves the purpose of advancing the story. Even Lee's emphasis on the dampness and mildew throughout the city becomes important to a final plot twist.

I know that Mary Quinn's story is unrealistic. I'm OK with that. There are times when a story like this one, wherein a spunky young girl manages to find a fulfilling life actually serve to make readers think even more about the impossibility of the story and the social restrictions placed on women at the time. This book is the first of a trilogy; I will gladly read the remaining two, and I hope that Y.S. Lee continues to write fiction for some time.

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Friday, June 24, 2011

Review: Confessions of the Nun of St. Omer: A tale

Confessions of the Nun of St. Omer: A tale (Gothic novels)Confessions of the Nun of St. Omer: A tale by Charlotte Dacre

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Arno Press edition of this book can be quite difficult to read. The book is a facsimile of the original 1805 publication. The font is set in a Caslon typeface, which, just for fun, also includes what's known as a long s. As Wikipedia notes, when a long s is used, the word sinfulness reads as "┼┐infulne┼┐s."

Once I adapted to the typeface, the book itself was a quick and easy read. This is the story of Cazire, a young girl whose father abandons her twice over. First, he takes her with him when he abandons her mother and takes up with a mistress. Under the influence of his mistress, he abandons her in a convent (to be educated--not to take the veil). Upon her apparent graduation, he sends her to live with her mother and ignores her. With this poor parental involvement, and with a largely superficial education, young Cazire takes up several shocking notions. She reads Rousseau (always a bad idea in a Dacre novel!) and decides that the most important aspect of life is love. Heavily sentimental, she understands that few men are likely to meet her high demands of a spouse.

Unfortunately for Cazire, the first man to even come close to her dreams is Fribourg--her mother's neighbor. Fribourg is a husband and father, but these facts are not enough to prevent Cazire from loving him. Fribourg encourages Cazire's affections, engaging her in long philosophic debates wherein he questions the role of duty and the sanctity of marriage.

Much of this novel is predictable, but there are also some truly moving passages. While Dacre clearly condemns Fribourg's philosophy, she is also very careful to present his arguments in detail. Cazire's gradual seduction to philosophy is realistic and well-portrayed.

This novel needs to be reprinted and made accessible to a younger generation of scholars.

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Saturday, June 18, 2011

Review: Greywalker

Greywalker (Greywalker, #1)Greywalker by Kat Richardson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've read this book four times now; this most recent reread was in preparation for reading book five shortly. (I'm rereading the series as a whole.) I've read four of the book in the series so far, and, in going back to the beginning, I'm amazed by how much foreshadowing Richardson really did. The first time I read this book, I was lost. I didn't really understand the Grey. I thought it was a great concept, but it seemed poorly fleshed out.

Now that I've gone back to the book, I can say that my first impressions were wrong. The Grey is not poorly fleshed out--the problem is that Harper doesn't understand it at all. She has friends that advise her, but they can't experience the Grey the same way she can, so it's like she's being taught how to sing by people that are tone deaf (please pardon the disability metaphor--this was the most innocuous one I could think of. As someone that wants to sing, and can't hear pitch all that well, it would fit me, too). They understand the concepts they're talking about, but they are unable to go into the Grey with her and cannot sense it in the same way she can. With each book, Harper's knowledge and instinctual understanding of the Grey grows. Knowing what I now know, it was wonderful to return to the beginning and see Richardson lay the groundwork for a very well-developed paranormal world.

I upped this book from three to four stars based on its relationship to the book that come later. It really is that good--you just have to read the rest to see it.

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