Monday, May 25, 2015

The Agency Series by Y.S. Lee: A review

It is entirely possible that I read more contemporary YA and Juvenile books than I read contemporary Adult fiction.  Keep in mind, though, that I read vastly more classic adult fiction than contemporary anything.  Another reason I read more YA is because every stinking book seems to become a series.  There are very few standalone novels in the teen section of my library.  Perhaps this is a ploy to get teens hooked into reading more.  If so, I certainly hope it’s working.  It certainly worked on me.

I most recently finished a YA quadrilogy by Y.S. Lee, entitled The Agency and with each volume having a subtitle (A Spy in the House, The Body at the Tower, The Traitor in the Tunnel, and Rivals in the City)At the top of each book is written “A Mary Quinn Mystery,” after the books’ heroine, so I suppose I’m supposed to use that as a guide for what I call this series.  However, I much prefer calling it “The Agency Books.”  To me, these books are less about the mystery of Mary Quinn figuring out whodunit, and more about espionage and the actual footwork of collecting evidence and stopping criminals, so although Mary Quinn is undoubtedly the center of these books, her work as an Agent is what makes these books notable.

This book series is very much like a Victorian Era Nikita, with half-Chinese, half-Irish orphan Mary Quinn saved from the noose by a secret, all-female covert operations Agency.  In her first assignment she’s charged with posing as a companion to a rich family’s daughter.  Sparks fly when she comes up against James Easton, who may be in league with the criminal she’s trying to track down, or might be an ally in her investigations. 

The author’s blurb explains that Y.S. Lee has a PhD in Victorian Literature and culture, and although she shows her work by filling out a very intricate picture of Victorian London, she doesn’t let these details bog down the action of Mary’s adventures undercover.    Lee is adept at making these characters believably Victorian, but also relatable to the modern reader, and her dialogue is usually sharp and witty.

I have really only two complaints about this series.  First, the romance part of these books is far too sensual for my taste—it is YA, after all.  Now, I am well aware that there are tons of books (mostly other YA books, but also adult contemporary) with much more graphic sensuality than this. However, for a book written by a Victorian Lit/Culture PhD, it seems quite a leap to be so attentive to historical accuracy, then suddenly having the main character think about the taste of some guy’s lips.* While nothing “happens” in the books that would be super inappropriate in our time, I’ve read enough Victorian literature myself to be puritanically shocked by this.

My second complaint is more substantial than that.  Because while the first objection was one of content, this second objection is one of storytelling.  I think that there should not have been a fourth volume.  First, stylistically it would have been apropos to have a novel about the Victorian era written in Three-Volume structure, since the three volume novel was a staple of Victorian literature (and is even referenced in Rivals in the City).  Second, Rivals in the City felt very much like a let-down, like a neat tying up of some loose strings that I as a reader didn’t need tied up, while also leaving several other more important plotlines unresolved. 

In the end, I would recommend this book to mature teens as a sort of Victorian escapism, and to readers who enjoy adventure/spy novels as well as books by Dickens.  My only suggestion would be to skip the fourth book.  The third book ends on a cliffhanger, but it is so much more satisfying a conclusion. 

*This is mentioned more than once, and stuck in my poor brain mostly because it brings to mind either that part of Shrek where Prince Charming is wearing cherry-flavored lipgloss, those edible Wax Lips.

Monday, May 18, 2015

A Trio of Fairy Tales: "The Little Book of Princesses," "The Rumpelstiltskin Problem," and "The Ordinary Princess"

Back when I was toying with decoupage as a possible hobby, I was kind of evil at book sales, buying books with every intent of cutting them up for their illustrations. I stopped for three reasons:
1.      I found out most of the paper I was using to form my magnificent collages was rife with acid and would yellow and eat away with time. Nothing quite puts a damper on a hobby like finding out it’s not going to last long enough to be put on exhibit at the museum.
2.      There’s only so much you can decoupage. And, while peeling dried Mod Podge off ones hands does have a strangely pleasant aesthetic appeal, it simply wasn’t as interesting as I’d thought.
3.      The Little Book of Princesses, compiled by Clare Charlton and edited by Philippa Wingate

Monday, May 4, 2015

Reviewing Gabor Boritt's "The Gettysburg Gospel": Part 2

So much for the “Gettysburg” part.  What about the “Gospel”? 

In religious terms, “gospel” is a Christian term, which means “good news,” and refers to the perfect life, sacrificial death, and the triumphant resurrection of Jesus, all in order to save everyone on earth from eternal punishment and to give each person a chance to reconcile with God and have a relationship with Him.

Throughout The Gettysburg Gospel, Boritt kept making the point of Lincoln using the word “God” instead of referring directly to Christ. The implication was that Lincoln was throwing those pious masses a bone. In my tabula rasa state, I had no real preconceptions that Lincoln was a Christian (I have my doubts about other presidents), but it seemed odd that Boritt kept underscoring this.  But, this being the first “adult” nonfiction book I’d read about Lincoln, I didn’t know who to trust. Was Boritt being a secular historian trying to minimize Lincoln’s spirituality?

Well, I went to someone I do trust, not only in American History matters, but in everything else.