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

I got The Little Book of Princesses for the illustrations.* Years later when I discovered this little-known backwater website called Pinterest I began a board for art from fairy tales, and lo and behold all these artists like Arthur Rackham and John Bauer are actually famous.  And here I thought this book was the only place I could get a-hold of them!

At the time I had no idea of this, however. As a matter of courtesy I thought I’d read the book before cutting it up. The introduction, “What is a Princess?” caught me by surprise:

“Princesses are the daughters of kings and queens, but in fairy tales there is a lot more to being a princess than that….The girls in these fairy tales are prepared to risk danger or disgrace in order to behave like a ‘proper’ princess.”

The first story is East of the Sun West of the Moon, and reading this destined-for-confetti-book was the first exposure I had to what eventually became a favorite fairy tale of mine.  Needless to say, I kept the book.

I love fairy tales even as an adult. But even as a child, I had issues with some of them. The characters are usually not characterized, and the plot devices sometimes made me close the book and bang my forehead against it, they were so nonsensical. (I mean, Hansel and Gretel, really. How come Hansel can’t get out of their house to get white stones the second time? Because the door was locked. From the outside. Apparently. I guess?)

Vivian Vande Velde provides some possible answers to one of the stories in The Rumplestiltskin Problem, a collection of short stories all based on Rumplestiltskin. Some are scary.  Some are funny. Some are ironic. But each one provides a solution to the many inconsistencies and questions posed by the original fairy tale.

I would like to note a possible parental objection for one of the stories, Straw into Gold, which ends with The Miller’s Daughter running off with Rumplestiltskin…after she married the king.  Granted the king forced her to marry him, and was by all accounts an unloving at best, homicidal at worst, character.  But I’m still recommending this book for older tweens/teens who possess the maturity to consider such moral implications. 

M.M. Kaye wrote The Ordinary Princess in a short span of time, and it is just as possible to read the entire book in an afternoon. It’s a simple tale, with no real villains and a very ordinary heroine named Amethyst Alexandra Augusta Araminta Adelaide Aurelia Anne…Amy for short. She is “cursed” with ordinariness by one of those “fairies that come to the christening,” making her different from her perfect, archetypal princess sisters. When she grows up and it’s clear that she doesn’t fit into people’s expectations of what a princess should look or act like, she runs away to find a place where she’ll fit in.   

It’s a very sweet, simple book with warm humor and neat line-drawn illustrations. Not an actual fairy tale re-imagining per se, but there’s plenty of references to Sleeping Beauty and other tales to firmly situate The Ordinary Princess into the same universe as Grimm and Perrault.

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.

“Dad, was Lincoln a Christian?”*
“No, I don’t think he was.”

Well, that settled it. I continued to listen to Boritt, freed from the nagging suspicion he was trying to retroactively impose his own worldview onto Lincoln. 

This helped a lot. Now I could comprehend there was an irony in calling his book The Gettysburg Gospel. The Gettysburg Address, given by a man who didn’t believe in the Christian Gospel. A man who possibly didn’t even believe in the afterlife, dedicating a field to lay the dead to rest. And what about the entire idea of a man who wasn’t “a technical Christian”** fighting to free slaves, when several Christians before and after rationalized the slave trade and racism? It’s a heavy load of thought! 

What I think Boritt was getting at ultimately was that with the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln was providing a sort of political gospel. A secular gospel. The speech is about how all the soldiers that died “gave their lives that the nation might live,” and how it is our responsibility—every American that has lived since that speech, not just those who were present to hear it in person—to make sure the democratic model of government works, in order to ensure that “these dead shall not have died in vain.” 

The thing is, this address is not a gospel.  It’s not “good news.” It’s a eulogy of people who died. Yes, they may have died for a good reason, but it’s still not good news that they died.  It’s a commission for the living to take up the quest for a new nation dedicated to liberty.  That’s a noble calling, but not good news. There’s no guarantee that the USA will last until the end of time as we know it. There’s no promise that even if it lasts it won’t be corrupted beyond all recognition from the ideals it was founded on. 

Remember the circumstance of this speech was a dedication of a cemetery. There is no real hope, no expectation of inevitable success, in the Gettysburg Address. And though that sounds depressing, it’s really okay. Because even though there is no true “political gospel,” there is a true capital “g” Gospel:

*My dad’s personal library consists mostly of books called “The Blue and the Gray”—or books that are literally blue and gray. 

**According to his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln.