Louisa Cosgrove is unusual for a Victorian young woman: passionate about science, aspiring to become one of the first generation of female doctors, and far more interested in her cousin Grace than in any young man she’s ever met. Her name isn’t Lucy Childs and she isn’t insane. And yet, she finds herself taken to an insane asylum, where the apathetic doctor and sadistic matron insist that she is Lucy Childs, and that her instance that she is Louisa Cosgrove is a symptom of her insanity. The only consolation is Eliza, a kind, smiling, pretty young woman who works in the asylum.

It’s a sweet, romantic little book. Louisa’s emotions are realistically raw and painful; her early unfounded hope and her growing sense of betrayal as she realizes that she is not in the asylum through sheer accident are particularly difficult. Eliza’s gentle raising of Louisa’s spirits and energy following a further catastrophe goes slowly but with a sense of the inevitable. Both Louisa’s early passionate crush on Grace and her more mature and balanced esteem for Eliza ring true.

Wildthorn gave me less of a feel for Victorian England than I would have liked. Rather than feeling grounded in its period, it felt like a struggle between twenty-first century mores and late-nineteenth century ones. Though Louisa’s indulgent father is presented as an explanation for her freethinking ways, the ease with which Louisa casts off Victorian ideals is stunning, and though Eliza is in many ways more of a realist and more aware of the difficulties they face, her casual and open acknowledgment of lesbianism makes her a bit too obviously an angel dropped into Louisa’s life to rescue her. The supporting characters, though far less sympathetic than the romantic leads, have more depth and more awareness of the time, and the ending is surprisingly pragmatic—though happy, it resists the urge to become utopian.

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Wildthorn

Ten Cents a DanceIt’s 1941 and fifteen-year-old Ruby’s working canning pickled hog’s feet in a meatpacking factory. (Ewwww.) She is not happy with this arrangement, but her father is long dead, her sister is even younger than she is, and her mother’s arthritis is too bad to allow her to work—she formerly worked in the factory where Ruby is now—and someone needs to earn their daily bread. Barely. So when a local—and very attractive—bad boy dances up a storm with Ruby at a party one night and then tells her that she could make big money as a taxi-dancer, dancing with men who pay a dime for the privilege, she takes the advice and gets herself a new job. It’s hardly reputable, so she lies to her mother, and the work has its own expenses to be paid, so she spends more on gowns and makeup than she brings home, and, as these things tend to, the lies and the spending build and build. And then there’s the bad boy and what he wants from Ruby.

Ruby is an obnoxious brat who, as a fellow taxi dancer points out, never listens to advice. She manages to be a sympathetic protagonist anyway, in part because she’s vulnerable under her tough veneer and in part because it’s easy to see how blinded she is by the shiny things being dangled in her path, distracting her from how much she’s getting in over her head. Also, she means well; she does want to get her family out of the slums, she does want to give her kid sister a good life, she does want to be a good girlfriend. It’s hard to watch her try so desperately and fall so flat, but it’s compelling, too.

The writing in Ten Cents a Dance is very strong; Ruby’s first-person, slangy narration easily conveys a sense of time, place, and class status. Her casual racism—which, mercifully, diminishes over the course of the novel as she gets to know some people of color—is an honest reflection of her upbringing and is presented in a matter-of-fact way, without sensationalizing.

In some ways, the ending feels a bit too neat, but in other ways it’s a perfect compromise—not too grim, but not rosy, either. I think the sense of over-neatness comes from how quickly the final resolution occurs and the slightly over-sappy final pages. (Movies should not end with voice-overs. Neither should books. Metaphorically.)

Anyway, the ending to the novel may be a bit pat, but the ending to the book makes up for it: there’s an author’s note that relates, in a few simple pages, the story of the author’s aunt, a taxi dancer. It’s a nifty bit of oral history, and, while the novel stands alone, it provides an extra bit of context and connection.

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Ten Cents a Dance ~ Christine Fletcher ~ Christine Fletcher’s Blog

The Agency Book 1: A Spy in the House A Mary Quinn MysteryThe Agency, Book 1, A Mary Quinn Mystery1

At age twelve, Mary Lang is convicted of housebreaking and sentenced to hang. This is Victorian London; she would hardly be the first nor the last orphan to meet such a fate. Instead, she is abducted on her way to the gallows and brought to the Academy, a school for girls that trains its pupils, many of them charity cases, in the usual subjects and a bonus in ambition and independent thought. Five years later, Mary—now Quinn, having reverted to her mother’s maiden name—is restless, unhappy with any of the traditional feminine options. Her mentors at the Academy provide an unexpected one: to join the Agency, an organization of female spies who take advantage of the general populace’s tendency to overlook and underestimate women. Soon, Mary is undercover in a wealthy merchant’s house, the secondary agent on a case of smuggled South Asian artifacts.

It’s exceedingly fun. The writing is smooth and engaging. Mary is a compelling heroine; accomplished, gutsy, and likable, but also fallible and liable to act on a whim. The case itself doesn’t stand out, but it’s certainly serviceable. The depth of the book comes from the social realities it portrays, from the negotiations and investigations behind society marriages to the limited livelihoods available to widows. The capricious debutante, the invalid mother, and the businessman father aren’t as simple as their tropes imply—and in keeping with the book’s theme, the women are particularly interesting, and particularly underappreciated by the men in their lives. Racism and the lives of Asian sailors in Victorian London are painted with accurately but without sensationalizing, and not only from the majority point of view. The potential romance is fine; didn’t really do much for me, but didn’t detract from the story or frustrate me. It make total sense that these two characters would have the hots for each other and it doesn’t take over the story.

The ending is frustrating, though in ways which are hard to discuss in a spoiler-free way. Suffice it to say Mary does something daft for the sole reason that this will let the author jerk us, and her, around at the end by denying us, and her, shiny knowledge. Which she does. I suspect this knowledge will come out in a future book, but if there’s a way for her to do so without it being an annoying deus ex machina, I don’t see it. Hopefully she has better plot-vision than I do, eh?

We’ll find out, because this book was highly entertaining and I’ll be on the lookout for the second book (coming in August!)

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1Yes, it says both of these on the cover. How many names does a series need?

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A Spy in the House ~ Y.S. Lee

the evolution of calpurnia tateThe lone girl sandwiched between six brothers, Calpurnia Virginia Tate—Callie Vee—is more comfortable romping the woods and swimming in the stream than knitting or sewing in the parlor. When a drought gets Callie wondering about grasshoppers—most summers she only sees one kind of grasshoppers, this time she’s seeing two—she faces her fear and talks to her grandfather, a rather forbidding amateur naturalist who generally ignores the children in favor of experiments in his laboratory. On finding a kindred spirit in Callie he makes an exception to his child-ignoring rule and teaches her about science, nature, and the distillation of liquor. (She finds that whiskey may cause coughing.)

It’s also the summer when it starts to sink in how differently boys and girls are treated in 1899, how few options she has, and how little she likes those options. The realization sits heavy on her, to say the least, and on her grandfather, too; he teaches her about Marie Curie and other lady scientists, but he knows that he’s making it harder for her to settle for the life her mother wants for her and the world expects of her, and that rejecting that life would take her down a very difficult path.

Callie is an appealing, energetic narrator, applying her wit and newly-trained skills of observation to the natural world and, with less consistent success, to her family. She is a product of her times and of her grandfather; her take on gender roles does not spring up fully-formed simple because she is the heroine of a modern volume of historical fiction and we expect our heroines to be sympathetic from a modern point of view, but rather we see it developing naturally through the conflicting influences of grandfather, brothers, best friend, mother, cook, and the telephone company. Memories of the Civil War frequently remind us how much Callie is the product of her time and place; with her friends and brothers, she maintains a reverence for Confederate soldiers, and no one likes the Federals.

It’s a slice-of-life book, covering the six months surrounding Callie’s twelfth birthday. It’s a pivotal six months of her life, and the book is a consistently interesting and enjoyable read, but as is so often the case with such books, the ending is abrupt and irresolute. We’re left with the hope that Callie will grow up from an unusual girl to an unusual woman, but with a lingering melancholy and a view of the obstacles that stand in her way.

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The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate ~ Jacqueline Kelly

Rumors a Luxe Novel Anna GodbersenFollowing on the heals of Godbersen’s delightfully trashy novel The Luxe, Rumors continues the stories of several Manhattan socialites at the very end of the nineteenth century. It is also delightful, decently-written trash.

Sometimes, that is just what I need.

Unlike its predecessor, this volume is a bit scattered. The characters who were so deeply enmeshed in each others’ lives and troubles were pulled apart by the events of the first book, so this time their concerns are less shared and even the social events rarely include the entire cast of main characters. On the other hand, while the villainess remains one-dimensional, it’s rather fun to watch her try to act good, chaste, and well-behaved. Plus, there are pretty things (dresses, accoutrements, people) under discussion, emotional intensity of both good and bad varieties, and Victorian-era snarkiness.

Best of all, she ends it by raising the stakes not once but twice, and bringing those scattered characters back to a more focused point just in time to convince me that yes, I will read the third book.

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Rumors
My review of The Luxe

When You Reach Me Rebecca SteadThe 1978-1979 school year is perfectly normal for Miranda. Except that her best friend stopped speaking to her, there’s an apparently crazy man who sleeps with his head under the mailbox on her corner, a naked man is seen running by her school on several occasions, and weird things keep happening. Like her spare house key goes missing and three days later she finds a note asking her to write a letter in which she mentions the location of her spare house key.

When You Reach Me is very good. The writing is excellent and the eye for detail is amazing. The mystery aspects, mysterious and mundane—what’s the deal with the strange notes Mira gets? Why did Marcus punch Sal? What’s up with Annemarie and Julia?—are dealt with well, with excellent pacing and delicacy. It doesn’t just balance the ordinary life and the time travel elements; it melds them. I found the discourse on time-travel a bit tedious, especially as Mira was stubbornly not getting it, though it did serve to establish how time travel works in this narrative.

This was almost a one-sitting book for me. It wasn’t, partly because airplane turbulence plus fasting (it was Yom Kippur) does not equal happy reading time, and partly because I was enjoying it so much I didn’t want to be done with it. That said, had there not been jostling to disrupt my reading, I probably wouldn’t have been able to pull myself out of the book and pace myself.

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When You Reach Me ~ Rebecca Stead ~ Rebecca Stead’s Blog

A Northern Light Book Cover by Jennifer DonnellyOne day in 1906, a guest staying at the hotel where Mattie works asks Mattie to burn a stack of letters. Then the young lady goes off boating, turning up twelve hours, dead. Mattie is left with the stack of letters, her promise to burn them, and many questions. Mattie pieces together what happened to the dead woman amidst her own indecision about the future: whether to follow her love of books and writing to Barnard College in New York City or whether to stay in the sleepy upstate New York farm community with her family, the neighbors she’s known all her life, and the boy she’s sweet on.

That boy, Royal, happens to be a royal ass. A pretty ass, and one who pays unprecedented attention to plain Mattie; it’s no mystery why she goes around with him. As an adult-type reading it, I didn’t have much patience for the elevated position Royal gets in Mattie’s indecision. You feel like you’d be betraying your dead mother by leaving your father and sisters to go to college? I still think you should go to college, but I can respect your inner conflict. You like snogging the jerk who doesn’t listen to you, doesn’t respect you, and is really mean to people you care about it? Dump him and go to college. You’ll find someone else to snog. Maybe someone you can have an actual conversation with, hm? Mattie’s desire to be happy with Royal is understandable and realistic, but it’s frustrating.

Despite the frustration, it’s a very good, and enjoyable book. Mattie has a nice balance of spunkiness and nervousness, intelligence and a hint of naivete. and the book is filled with rich detail on early twentieth century Adirondak life, complete with troublesome tourists, cattle disease, hard childbirth, hunger, small-town gossip, racism, and casual domestic violence. At times, Mattie’s earnest complaints that the lives of her neighbors are more interesting than the civil, stiff lives portrayed in Austen and Dickens, and that books don’t tell the truth, become tedious; firstly, we got the point the first time she said it, and secondly, we must agree with her to some extent or we would have picked up a different book. These small faults aside, it’s an absorbing book with a heroine it’s easy to root for, even when she’s being a bit daft.

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A Northern Light ~ Jennifer Donnelly