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!)

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

____________________
A Spy in the House ~ Y.S. Lee

Advertisements

Nick doesn’t like Mrs. Starch, his biology teacher; she’s strict, a tough grader, and likes to use homework for both punishment and humiliation. Nonetheless, he’s worried when she disappears: a fire breaks out during a field-trip to the everglades, she goes back for a student’s dropped asthma inhaler, and never returns. The school insists she’s taking a leave of absence to deal with family matters, but it doesn’t make sense to Nick. With his friend Marta, Nick decides to investigate, even if he’s a little afraid of the number one suspect: a classmate recently antagonized by Mrs. Starch and with a history of arson.

Carl Hiaasen’s books are always fun: a dose of environmentalism, a dose of mystery, a dose of adventure, and leavened by his rather twisted sense of humor. Unfortunately, he’s getting a touch predictable, especially in his children’s books; having read both of his early kid’s books and about half of his adult books, I enjoyed Scat but the main plot never surprised me or held me in suspense.

The secondary plot, on the other hand, had me on the edge of my seat. Nick’s father is just returning from a tour of service in Iraq, and not entirely intact. Nick and his parents’ struggle to adjust and Nick’s father’s medical setbacks are masterfully portrayed, particularly as Nick fights for a sense of control over a situation in which really, he has no control.

And the rest of the time it’s running around the everglades saving panthers and defeating greedy oilmen, in true Carl Hiaasen tradition.

____________________
Scat ~ Carl Hiaasen

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.

____________________
A Northern Light ~ Jennifer Donnelly

James Kennedy the Order of the Odd-Fish Book CoverIt’s not that Jo’s life was normal—she did, after all, live with a former movie star who once disappeared for 40 years and reappeared minus her memories; and Jo herself was found as an infant in the actress, Lily’s, washing machine with a note warning that she was a DANGEROUS baby—but it was fairly boring. Then a strange man showed up talking about his digestion, accompanied by a rather dapper—perhaps even dashing, possibly debonair, and certainly dandyishly dressed—cockroach, and before they know it, Jo and Lily are swallowed by a fish and spat out in Eldritch City. With their memories restored, Lily, the strange man, and the cockroach are readmitted, and Jo admitted, into the Order of Odd-Fish, a society of ditherers dedicated to collecting dubious data.¹ This is all well and good. Less well and good is that Lily et al were exiled, their memories removed, in relation to an incident thirteen years before in which a large portion of the city was destroyed due to the birth of a baby. A DANGEROUS baby. A DANGEROUS baby who, it is prophesied via TV show, will soon return as the Ichthala and finish destroying the city—nay, the world.

Eldritch City is a place of traditions, rituals, and festivals. Kennedy is at his most brilliantly inventive with the charters², gods³, projects4, and the like that characterize life in the city. Unfortunately, sometimes his creativity seems to run away with him:

‘[They] first have to give the girl some of the powers of the All-Devouring Mother. They do this by putting some of the All-Devouring Mother’s blood in her. . . . His…stinger,’ she said. ‘I know it doesn’t make sense, but the show says he grows a stinger, or beak, or some kind of second nose somewhere inside him.’ 5

Holy disturbing rape imagery in a children’s book, Batman! And then he makes it worse: “His gigantic purple nose was runny and engorged, a shapeless mass of skin and fat and veins.”6 Robin, what have I done to you?7

Deep breath. Moving on.

Jo’s isolation and anxiety are extremely well done. She has great friends and loves her life in Eldritch City, but she can never tell them who she really is. They, along with most everyone else in Eldritch City, declare themselves to hate the Ichtala and to want to destroy it. So Jo goes along for a while, happy and absorbing in her life with the Odd-Fish, until a random comment sends her into paroxysms of fear and loneliness; the fear and loneliness fade in the face of everyday life, only to rear up again a little stronger at the next comment or reminder. Unable to talk to anyone, she quietly panics while those around her discuss the evil she supposedly caused, will cause, and will experience.

The threatening stuff is mixed. On the one hand, the religion behind the Ichthala and those who actually want her to come destroy the world does make sense. Destructive and eschatological, yes, but logical and even beautiful (in the mathematical sense). On the other hand, the villains are not particularly interesting and are particularly annoying. They’re both trying too hard: one to be evil, the other to be funny. In their failures, they don’t produce schadenfreude; they produce embarrassment. And I really hate vicarious embarrassment.

The author is, i think, an Odd-Fish: “‘As an Odd-Fish, it is not my job to be right,’ said Sir Oort. ‘It is my job to be wrong in new and exciting ways.'”8. Mostly right, somewhat wrong, The Order of Odd-Fish is certainly new and exciting.

____________________
¹ In case you were wondering, yes, the alliteration is necessary, and yes, it has precedent in the book.
² “‘”It is an appendix of dubious facts, rumors, and myths,”‘ recited Colonel Korsakov. ‘”A repository of questionable knowledge, and an opportunity to dither about.” That’s from our charter.'” pp. 85-86.
³ Quafmaf, the Pigeon of the Moon; Nixilpilfi, the Gerbil Who Does Not Know Mercy; Mizbiliados, the Bleeding Butterfly; Pzarnarfalasath, the Rhinoceros Whose Laughter Destroys Worlds; and 144,440 more. pp. 262, 261.
4 “‘As you know, my specialty is unusual musical instruments,’ announced Sir Alasdair. ‘And for all my life, I’ve dreamed of playing the most unusual instrument of all: a living animal!'” p. 175.
5 Pp. 243-244.
6 P. 246.
7 From an actual golden age comic.
8 P. 175.

_____________________
The Order of Odd-Fish ~ James Kennedy

The ExplosionistIn a world where Wellington, not Napoleon, met his Waterloo at, well, Waterloo, it’s 1938 and the world is on the brink of war: a united Europe, complete with a conquered England, is being held barely in check by a Hanseatic League (Russia, the Scandinavian countries, and our setting, Scotland). Radios regularly pick up messages from the spirit world, and important members of government attend seances on a regular basis.

Fifteen-year-old Sophie is studying for exams, thinking about her crush on her chem teacher, trying to ignore suicide bombings, and worrying about her and her friends’ futures: university, the Army Ladies’ Auxiliary – which does allow women to serve in combat – or IRYLNS, the Institute for the Recruitment of Young Ladies for National Security, which supplies the important men of with secretaries and assistants of extraordinary caliber.

When a medium at a seance has a message for Sophie, her life quickly spirals out of control as she finds herself investigating a murder, something suspicious about IRYLNS, and possibly the roots of the terrorism plaguing Edinburgh. Unfortunately, the narrative also spins out of control; though the world is well-developed and interesting, the plot seems rather listless, jumping from one point to another. There aren’t major holes, it just feels discontinuous and unrooted. Sophie is a disappointment; she makes some efforts to influence her future and the world around her, but is frustratingly placid when her efforts fail and when choice is entirely taken away from her.

____________________
The Explosionist ~ Jenny Davidson

Phillip Pullman writes a Victorian mystery.

What, you need me to tell you more?

Sally’s father, a shipping agent, died on a recent shipwreck. Shortly thereafter, she receives a very odd, poorly-spelled, and most distressing note containing a remarkably vague warning. Naturally, being a spunky heroine¹, Sally sets out to learn the truth of the note, and, just as naturally, certain adventures, mysteries, dangers, and steps towards self-actualization follow.

As we’ve come to expect, Pullman writes an excellent yarn. It has none of the scope and grandeur of the His Dark Material books², but that’s okay; it’s well-written and engaging, and even if we’ve gotten used to spunky female characters, Sally is appealing, strong without being invulnerable or over-perfect. And sometimes, you just need a couple hours with a girl detective finding her way in a simpler time. Or at least, sometimes that’s what I need.

____________________
¹I almost called her unconventional, but then I remembered that spunky heroines have their own convention. It’s just rarely recognized by the supporting characters.

²What were they thinking when they created a series title beginning with a pronoun? There’s no graceful way to refer to them, as both “The His…” and “A His…” sound awful. Series names should either come with a definite article (i.e., The Baroque Cycle) or be able to have one easily appended (i.e., Circle of Magic easily becomes the Circle of Magic books). Anyway.
____________________
The Ruby in the Smoke ~
My review of
Once Upon a Time in the North

Ted and his sister, Kat, wave to their cousin, Salim, as Salim gets on the London Eye. Half an hour later, Salim’s pod comes back down – but there’s no sign of Salim. Their parents, Salim’s mom, and eventually the police start looking for the missing boy, but no one is really listening to Ted and Kat – nor are they paying attention to the most interesting part of the mystery: that Salim disappeared from out of a sealed pod. Naturally, this means that the kids must launch an investigation of their own.

It’s a pretty clever mystery, but that’s not why the book stands out: it stands out because of the autistic narrator. Ted’s Asperger’s Syndrome (presumably; instead of naming it, it’s just called “my Syndrome” or “what he has,” which I find rather annoying) means that he sees the world differently; we see his constant struggle to interpret social cues, facial expressions, and body language. We also see him making connections that no one else does – and thus solving the mystery. It’s very well done, but I found my (non-autistic) brain getting really tired from trying to wrap itself around a different way of thinking.

I really want to say something here connecting the experience of reading The London Eye Mystery – and, therefore, being immersed in an autistic way of thinking for 300 pages – to how people with autism are constantly immersed in a society that, collectively, has a non-autistic way of thinking. I’m not sure I can actually do so without seeming presumptuous – even having read this book, even having autistic acquaintances, I really don’t know what it’s like to be autistic, and I don’t want to pretend that I do. So I’ll leave it to you to draw inferences, in whatever way works for your brain.

____________________
Siobhan Dowd ~ The London Eye Mystery
My review of Siobhan Dowd’s Bog Child