A Spy in the House: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Agency: A Spy in the House by Y. S. LeeMary Quinn is twelve-years-old when she is arrested for theft and sentenced to hang in London in 1853.

Rescued from the gallows, Mary receives an extraordinary offer of an education and proper upbringing at Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls. Hidden behind the cover of a finishing school, The Agency works as an all-female investigative unit.

Five years later, with her training nearly complete, Mary is offered her first assignment working undercover as a lady’s companion. Stationed in a rich merchant’s home, Mary is tasked with helping along the investigation into missing cargo ships.

As Mary delves deeper into her investigation she soon discovers that everyone in the household is hiding something in A Spy in the House (2010) by Y. S. Lee.

A Spy in the House is Lee’s first novel. It is also the start of The Agency series (and consequently sometimes referred to as The Agency–by me at least).

Lee presents a well-researched, thoroughly engrossing mystery here. A Spy in the House evokes the gritty and glamorous parts of 1850s London with pitch-perfect descriptions. The dialog also feels true to the period with no jarring, obviously modern, turns of phrase.

The story is filled with twists and also some very smart observations about race, feminism and what being a woman with agency might have looked like in 1850s London. Although the ending is a bit rushed there is still an ideal balance between closure and hints of what to expect in future installments. The resolution is quite surprising in a way that is especially satisfying for a Victorian mystery.

Mary is a capable, pragmatic heroine who is as smart as she is endearing. With just a hint of romantic flirtation that is realistic and witty (and decidedly lacking in instant love), A Spy in the House

Possible Pairings:  I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You by Ally Carter, The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani, Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare, Nathaniel Fludd, Beastologist: Flight of the Phoenix by R. L. LaFevers with illustrations by Kelly Murphy,  Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld, Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White, Sorcery and Cecelia by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevemer

Death Cloud: A Review

Death Cloud by Andew LaneDeath Cloud by Andrew Lane (2010)

Summer 1868: After an interminable year away at boarding school, fourteen-year-old Sherlock Holmes is eager to return to the family home where he can explore to his heart’s content and see his father and mother. Sherlock is crushed when his older brother Mycroft instead tells Sherlock he will be staying with distant relatives in Hampshire.

Dismayed at this horrible turn of events, Sherlock is prepared for a terrible summer. Then he meets a drifter about his own age named Matty Arnett as well as an unconventional tutor named Amyus Crowe. Together the trio are soon drawn into a mystery involving a dead body, noxious gasses and–strangest of all–a cloud that seems to move with purpose.

Death Cloud is the first book in Lane’s Young Sherlock Holmes series.

Mystery fans and fans of the worlds greatest detective will all find something to enjoy in this action-packed adventure. Lane gains momentum throughout the narrative seemingly becoming more comfortable with writing about this famous character as the story progresses. Much in the grand tradition of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original novels, Lane offers a madcap mystery with imaginative devices and a villain that will likely follow young Sherlock throughout the series.

Lane also offers nods to what seasoned readers know lies in store for Sherlock as well as new insights into how Crowe, Shelock’s tutor, helped shape his deductive reasoning. In fact, the biggest problem with Death Cloud is reconciling this young boy who is observant but often also less-than-learned with the brilliant detective that has become part of the public consciousness. While some teachable moments between Sherlock and Crowe feel forced (as Lane tries to use what Sherlock doesn’t know to anticipate that which younger readers may not know) the story and characters come together nicely here.

Death Cloud is an approachable, engaging mystery that will appeal to readers (and Sherlock fans) of all ages.

Possible Pairings:  Gideon the Cutpurse by Linda Buckley-Archer, The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson, Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy, Jackaby by William Ritter, The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud, Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

Shift: A Review

Shift by Jennifer BradburyChris didn’t know what to expect when he and his best friend Win began their cross-country bike ride the summer after high school graduation. Chris had made all of the needed preparations from packing food to making sure his bicycle was balanced. He made sure Win did the same.

And most of the trip was everything Chris hoped it would be. More, even, than he could imagine when they started the trip in West Virginia.

Until everything started to go wrong.

Fast forward to the weeks after the trip:

After they part ways, Chris finishes the ride in Seattle and hops a bus back home with a week to spare before starting college.

Chris assumes that Win does the same thing.

Chris is wrong.

Now Chris is being hounded by Win’s influential and severely upset father, federal agents and who knows who else. Everyone wants to find Win and bring him home. Chris, in particular, wants answers. He is owed answers. But before Chris can even try to find Win he’ll have to rethink everything about their fateful trip in Shift (2008) by Jennifer Bradbury.

Shift is Bradbury’s first novel.

Shift is a deceptively simple mystery. With chapters alternating between Chris’ current situation getting settled at college and flashbacks to his disastrous road trip with Win, Bradbury presents a surprisingly faceted image of both boys. Expertly handled exposition highlights the changes in both Win and Chris over the course of the trip.

Although the story very much focuses on Chris, and to a lesser extent Win, Bradbury still manages to add some diversity to the cast and also present effective, well-realized female characters in secondary roles.

The clues Chris follows as he tries to figure out the truth behind Win’s disappearance often feel obvious. However they all still build to a satisfying conclusion as Chris works toward the truth. This character-driven story is as much a tense mystery as it is a coming of age story. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Midnight Dress by Karen Foxlee, Paper Towns by John Green, Stranger in the Forest by Eric Hansen, Racing California by Janet Nichols Lynch, The Boneshaker by Kate Milford, Wild Awake by Hilary T. Smith, The Space Between Trees by Katie Williams, Paper Valentine by Brenna Yovanoff

The Book of Blood and Shadow: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Book of Blood and Shadow by Robin Wasserman

“I should probably start with the blood.

. . .

“But beginning with that night, with the blood, means that Chris will never be anything more than a corpse, bleeding out all over his mother’s travertine marble, Adriane nothing but a dead-eyed head case, rocking and moaning, her clothes soaked in his blood, her face paper white with that slash of red razored into her cheek. If I started there Max would be nothing but a void.”

Nora Kane never expected her independent study as a research assistant would lead to romance or murder much less a centuries-old conspiracy that started in 16th Century Prague.

And yet, after just a few months translating the letters of Elizabeth Weston, Nora finds herself in the middle of a nightmare tied to a mysteriously indecipherable book called the Voynich Manuscript and the forces who want to unravel its secrets in The Book of Blood and Shadow (2012) by Robin Wasserman.

The Book of Blood and Shadow is a thoroughly-researched blend of thriller and mystery that imagines what secrets the real Voynich Manuscript might hold. This story is dense with details of Prague’s history as well as morsels of truth about the real historical figures who feature in this work of fiction.

Although often long-winded with its extensive detail, this book is always extremely clever. The plotting is surprising and aptly executed even when it veers into the very, very unlikely.

Wasserman also does interesting things with characterization. Readers know early on exactly how bloody this story will be even though the inciting incident from the first page is not fully addressed until about one hundred pages into the story. Throughout the novel there is a push and pull dynamic between what is presented as fact and what is left to the imagination. (Is Max guilty? Is he unhinged or is it just being told that Max is unhinged that makes the difference?)

Sadly, not all books are for every reader either. The Book of Blood and Shadow brought up some particularly specific and personal bad memories that made it very difficult to finish. I also discovered, in reading page after page about it, that I have almost zero interest in Prague or its history. These were obstacles.

The bigger obstable, however, was Nora herself. Despite all of the things Wasserman does extremely well, Nora remains a very one-dimensional character. We see her through a few specific lenses (friend, girlfriend, researcher, daughter) but none of those pieces coalesce into a larger picture. Even as the narrator of the book, Nora’s story often felt more like a frame for the smaller story found in Elizabeth Weston’s letters.

While this book has a good story and raises a lot of interesting questions, it is very thin on closure. The treatment of Adriane is also problematic not just as the only other (not-centuries-dead) female character but also as Nora’s friend. No level of cleverness can distract from the problems surrounding Adriane’s character arc.

Recommended for readers who enjoy a surprising mystery and want to watch all of the puzzle pieces come together. Less recommended for readers with only a minimal interest in Prague. Not at all recommended for readers who might ask themselves what it means when the minority characters in a book are either murdered or complicit by the end of the story.

You can find more information about The Book of Blood and Shadows and the real stuff featured therein on Robin Wasserman’s website: http://www.robinwasserman.com/bloodshadow.html

Possible Pairings: What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell, The Diviners by Libba Bray, Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly, I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga,  Tamar by Mal Peet, The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan, The Archived by Victoria Schwab, All These Things I’ve Done by Gabrielle Zevin

Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone: A Review

Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone by Kat RosenfieldBecca is just getting ready to leave her small town behind for good when the dead girl is found. Suddenly Becca’s plan to go to college and never look back seems trivial at best. It seems like the peak of hubris to think Becca can get away when the dead girl could not.

Paralyzed by the shock of this sudden violence, Becca isn’t sure what to believe when her future–even the future in general–seems impossible to fathom in Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone (2012)by Kat Rosenfield.

Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone is Rosenfield’s first novel.

Becca’s first-person narrative is intercut with short chapters outlining the moments that lead to the unidentified dead girl’s–Amelia Anne’s–murder.

Rosenfield’s writing is lush and highly literary with vivid, often unsettling, descriptions of Becca’s surroundings and the scenes that lead to Amelia Anne’s murder.

The mystery aspect is handled well here. Although it was possible to guess the ending early on, the pieces of the puzzle still twisted in a direction that was difficult to anticipate. Although the plot meanders with Becca’s doubts and fears, the story is generally solid.

The chapters about Amelia are particularly well-done as they illustrate Amelia’s growth as she comes into her own before her life is cut tragically short. Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone is a frank and unflinching story. Both Becca and Amelia do not shy away from talking about sex or other topics in their narratives. That said, it would have been nice to have a little more context when Amelia talks to her boyfriend about rougher behavior (Specifically she says to him: “Haven’t you ever thought about grabbing me from behind and throwing me against the wall? Just taking what you wanted?”). After the topic is initially raised there is not, unfortunately, any talk of consent and instead the chapter ends abruptly with no further discussion.

Unfortunately there isn’t much sense of character here. The only person readers really know is Amelia while Becca feels more like a convenient frame for a mystery that wouldn’t flesh out into a full novel. Becca rarely comes across as truly real and Amelia’s chapters stretch the limits of an omniscient narrator when combined with the first person structure of the rest of the novel. The secondary characters are painted with sharp vignettes that remain closer to caricature than actual characterization.

The narrative voice never quite works with many different tones competing in one slim book. In addition to Becca’s first-person musings there are also third-person chapters about Amelia. In addition, Becca’s narrative often goes off on tangents about the hive mind of small towns and the “we” mentality that often develops as a result. These  “we” passages feel lofty.

While this was an interesting story about cause and effect and the lingering impact of consequences it still feels more like a literary exercise than a mystery novel. Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone is, however, undoubtedly well-written and demonstrates that Rosenfield is an author to watch.

Possible Pairings: Find Me by Romily Bernand, The Night She Disappeared by April Henry, I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga, Acceleration by Graham McNamee, Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott, Missing Abby by Lee Weatherly, Wherever Nina Lies by Lynn Weingarten, Cathy’s Book: If Found Call 650-266-8233 by Jordan Weisman and Sean Stewart, Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma, The Space Between Trees by Katie Williams

The Space Between Trees: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Space Between Trees by Katie WilliamsSixteen-year-old Evie is always ready to share a good story. The problem is that sometimes those stories start to look a lot like lies. Especially when Evie tries to claim the story as her own in the telling.

That’s how things start with Jonah Luks. Before she knows it, Evie is spinning out a largely imagined relationship with the older college dropout she encounters every week on her paper route. It’s a harmless story and an even more harmless crush. Nothing else.

Until Evie sees Jonah report the dead body he found in the woods. Until Evie watches the body being pulled out of the woods in a bag.

In her efforts to write herself into this new, worse, story Evie’s lies become bigger; harder to contain and impossible to ignore. Everything changes after the body is found in the woods and people begin to wonder what sort of violence has come into their secluded community. What Evie doesn’t realize, at least not right away, is that in the wake of this story she might change too in The Space Between Trees (2010) by Katie Williams.

The Space Between Trees is an expertly told story with flawless pacing. The mystery surrounding the murder unfolds in a natural and believable way that makes for a seamless plot. Evie is a fascinating narrator. She is unreliable on a very basic level with everyone she interacts with during the story. Nothing Evie says can be taken as the exact, full, truth. Yet to readers Evie is achingly honest as she shares her observations and hopes in equal measure.

This is a deceptively short story with layers upon layers of interpretation and a nice bit of substance under the mystery elements. Williams raises interesting questions here about what it means to tell stories versus the truth as well as pondering along with Evie how experiences (both told and lived) can shape a person.

The Space Between Trees is literary and thoughtful in a way that feels effortless. Evie is a strong and utterly original narrator who is as flawed as she is insightful. Like its heroine, this mystery that will stay with readers long after the final story is told. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, Shift by Jennifer Bradbury, What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell, All Fall Down by Ally Carter,The Midnight Dress by Karen Foxlee, Liar by Justine Larbalestier, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone by Kat Rosenfield, A Map of the Known World by Lisa Ann Sandell, Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma, Wherever Nina Lies by Lynn Weingarten, Paper Valentine by Brenna Yovanoff

The Night She Disappeared: A Review

The Night She Disappeared by April HenryGabie drives a Mini Cooper. She works at Pete’s Pizza where she makes deliveries. She’s the girl the customer asked for on Wednesday when Kayla was making deliveries. Gabie is the girl that would have been taken if she and Kayla hadn’t swapped shifts.

Now Kayla is gone. Gabie can’t stop thinking about how it should have been her that night. Drew–the boy who took the call–keeps wondering if he should have done something.

With Kayla dead or maybe worse, Gabie becomes obsessed with the investigation and–if she can–with finding Kayla. Riddled with guilt and his own desire to see help both girls, Drew decides to help. With time running out and few leads, Gabie and Drew will have to work together to prove that Kayla is alive and to find Kayla before she isn’t anymore in The Night She Disappeared (2012) by April Henry.

The Night She Disappeared is a well-assembled page-turner with a multimedia aspect as receipts, news clippings and other ephemera are interspersed to help tell the story. Short chapters with varied viewpoints and Henry’s straightforward prose make this book very readable with appeal for both avid and reluctant readers.

Although Gabie’s connection to Kayla pushes the limits of plausibility in this contemporary mystery, it still does add a unique dimension to the story. With no supernatural sideline and minimal romance, The Night She Disappeared is more in the vein of traditional mysteries as Gabie and Drew move through their investigation. Every piece works well here to create a tense narrative that builds to a surprising, action-packed conclusion.

Possible Pairings: Find Me by Romily Bernand, I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga, Acceleration by Graham McNamee, Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone by Kat Rosenfield, Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott, Missing Abby by Lee Weatherly, Wherever Nina Lies by Lynn Weingarten, Cathy’s Book: If Found Call 650-266-8233 by Jordan Weisman and Sean Stewart