Y. S. Lee’s The Agency series

In Victorian London, twelve-year-old Mary Quinn faces the noose for house-breaking and theft. It matters not to the authorities that she’s an orphan, homeless and starving, but it does matter to the women who run Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls, who hustle her out of Newgate Prison and provide her with a home and an education. Five years later, she’s let in on the school’s biggest secret: it also plays host to an organisation calling itself the Agency, a group of female private detectives working on all manner of cases in London. Mary eagerly accepts the invitation to join, setting off a string of adventures as wide-reaching as insurance fraud and high treason.

A few weeks ago I recommended Gail Carriger’s Etiquette & Espionage, and I commented that I loved the way Mademoiselle Geraldine’s uses Victorian stereotypes about women to facilitate covert operations. The Agency is founded on a similar premise, its modus operandi being that women are overlooked and considered frivolous and so can effectively gather information.

A Spy in the HouseUnlike Etiquette & Espionage, however, The Agency does not take refuge in audacity. Its premise is unlikely, but not utterly implausible, and it’s supported by a story that is meticulously researched. Y. S. Lee has a PhD. in Victorian literature, and it shows. Besides the existence of a female-led private investigation service (and, let’s face it, if one had existed, it couldn’t have been very good if we knew about it), the details are spot-on. Moreover, the series shows a thorough and nuanced understanding of the constraints placed on women in Victorian society. While Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy, the school to which the Agency is attached, is dedicated to training girls for independent futures, whether or not those are with the Agency, it’s clear that these women are the lucky few, and the series is sensitive towards the women who do morally questionable things in an attempt to pursue a better life.

The Body at the TowerFor instance, Amy Tranter in The Traitor in the Tunnel makes it quite clear to Mary that a significant component of her interest in Mr Jones stems from the fact that he is wealthy enough she won’t have to scrub chamber pots anymore. This could easily be used to portray her as an unsympathetic gold-digger, but it’s clear that life as a domestic servant is hard and thankless, without any hope of financial security in old age, and Amy is portrayed as a friendly, lively young woman, not at all greedy.

Of particular note is the treatment of Angelica Thorold, who is set up as a rather cruel young woman in A Spy in the House, yet develops something of a friendship with Mary by the final novel. Angelica may bully Mary and encourage the affections of her father’s assistant, but it’s clear that she feels stifled by her life and societal expectations and would love nothing more than to pursue a life as a pianist. When she manages to attain some level of independence and self-determination, she becomes not only happier but much kinder.

The Traitor in the TunnelSimilarly, the narrative never judges Mary for concealing her Chinese ancestry, and the story doesn’t shy away from the realities of being a mixed-race woman in Victorian society; Mary’s actions are those of self-preservation, not shame. I particularly liked this component of the series, as it’s not often in historical fiction that we get this kind of insight into the racial undertones of Victorian London society.

In nobody is this more apparent than in James Easton, Mary’s love interest. As love interest, he is, clearly, meant to be a sympathetic character, and it’s clear he’s well-meaning and has high moral standards. However, he has also internalised many of the biases and stereotypes of his culture, and while he thinks it ludicrous to hold Mary’s parentage against her, he equally shows an ingrained sense of superiority regarding English culture over Chinese. Moreover, it takes him time to respect Mary as an equal and not make sweeping generalisations about women being romantic or frivolous. The series makes it clear that he must become more open-minded in order to be a worthy love interest for Mary, but also shows just how many ingrained assumptions there are and how difficult it is to overcome them.

Rivals in the CityI’ve spoken a lot about the social and cultural themes in this series, and they’re a large part of what makes these books so compelling, but they are, at their core, mystery novels, and each book is an engaging adventure into the seedier side of Victorian London, a city that was at once a hub of scientific and social advancement and a place rife with poverty and inequality. If you’re interested in the Victorian era, detective fiction, or just generally badass women, then The Agency belongs on your TBR.

Nicola has long been fascinated with the study in contrasts that was Victorian society, and it’s one of her favourite eras to read about – provided there are plenty of kickass women in the story, of course. You can find her on Twitter.


DI Marjory Fleming series, by Aline Templeton

Cold in the EarthThe south-west of Scotland is dominated by the region of Galloway, known somewhat ironically as the Scottish Riviera for its (comparatively) sunny weather. Beloved by painters such as the Glasgow Boys, it’s one of the more picturesque parts of the country, home to green hills and blue waters. My fiancé’s family hails from the region, and I’ve visited more times than I can count in the years I’ve been lucky enough to know him. It is unsurprising, then, that Aline Templeton’s DI Marjory Fleming series, set in the fictional market town of Kirkluce, Galloway, caught my eye. I’m always interested in settings I’ve been to in real life, but it’s rare for me to find books that so vividly and accurately depict a place I know so well.

The series follows Fleming in her work as a Detective Inspector, first for the Galloway Constabulary and later with Police Scotland, as she solves murders in her rural community. Each novel is a self-contained murder mystery, set against the backdrop of Galwegian society and within the context of the lives of Marjory and her fellow officers.

These books are part mystery, part social commentary, and part women’s fiction. The core story in each novel is a murder mystery, but it’s woven into the fabric of rural politics and national events. In Cold in the Earth, for instance, the foot-and-mouth crisis from the start of the 21st-century plays a major role both in the story as a whole and in Marjory’s personal life, for her husband, Bill, is a sheep farmer. Likewise, in the most recent installment, The Third Sin, the Scottish referendum is fast approaching and the discrete police forces have recently merged into Police Scotland, and Marjory finds herself at loggerheads with her Dumfries counterpart when she is brought into a case whose murder occurred on his turf. The way Templeton orients these books within actual Scottish events may not mean much to readers outside the UK, but for me it reinforces the realness of the world she’s created in these books, as do the rich depictions of places I’ve been.

Whether it’s Marjory’s somewhat turbulent relationship with her teenage daughter or the relationship between murderer and victim, these books are, ultimately, about people and their relationships with each other, and all the ways those relationships might be defined. The focus on the characters is one of my favourite things about this series. Marjory’s relationships – with her family, with her colleagues, with her boss, and with the people she serves – intersect and come into conflict with one another throughout the series, and this is one of the ways in which this being a series rather than discrete mysteries is so great. Although the murders are always resolved by the end of the book, the main characters stay and, in the interests of verisimilitude, there’s always a couple of years between the events of each book. Picking up a new book in this series feels like catching up with old friends, and the time skip between books means that each time I return to the series I’m eager to find out what the characters have been up to, and sinking into their comfortable familiarity.

There’s something for everyone in this series, whether you’re looking for a fast-paced murder mystery or a glimpse into rural Scottish society. Templeton’s rich description pulls you under, immersing you in her world as she shares her characters’ lives with you. If you like Robert Galbraith’s novels, you’ll love this series.

Nicola lives, reads and drinks copious amounts of tea in Edinburgh, Scotland, though she often escapes to Galloway for weekends and holidays. You can follow her on her blog and on Twitter.


New Literary Horror: The Walls Around Us, Bones & All, Bone Gap

For my February finale, I’d planned to follow up on my last post with a look at my favorite series of fairy tale retellings: Marissa Meyer’s The Lunar Chronicles. But I just couldn’t wait any longer to recommend three March releases in a different genre—literary horror. Laura Ruby’s Bone Gap, Nova Ren Suma’s The Walls Around Us, and Camille DeAngelis’ Bones & All show how eloquent and imaginative prose can amplify horrific events and our most primal fears.

Like a classic horror movie, Bone Gap is set in a stereotypical Midwestern town, with cornfields that haunt the main protagonist, Finn. They talk to him and grow at an alarming rate, among spooky scarecrows and crows that threaten to pluck out his eyes and peck him to death. Like a chorus in a Greek play, the people of Bone Gap introduce Finn as a freak, calling him Spaceman, Sidetrack, and Moonface because he is distracted and avoids eye contact. Finn’s strange behavior is more understandable when he becomes a main narrator and the horror story develops. Two months ago, he was the only witness to the disappearance of Roza, his brother’s girlfriend. While the people of Bone Gap stop looking for her because they think she fled, Finn believes she was kidnapped and he must find her, but he can’t recall what her abductor looks like.

Roza’s narrative reveals that a man with eyes like ice has taken her because she is a beautiful woman who will love him. Her abduction seems mythical (think Persephone) and Bone Gap uses magical realism to emphasize its sinister nature. But while the captured woman is often powerless and voiceless in myths, Roza has agency and willpower. Bone Gap emphasizes the victimization of women that is typical of horror and empowers “the damsel in distress.”

Also told through alternate voices, The Walls Around Us is a creepy supernatural tale, combining prison drama and dance rivalry — “Orange is the New Black meets Black Swan” as some reviewers have called it. There’s Amber, imprisoned in a girls’ juvenile detention center, and Violet, a dancer haunted by her best friend Orianna’s imprisonment and death in that detention center. The book opens with Amber experiencing a phenomenal event: suddenly the prisoners are set free from their cells. But she is a ghost reliving what happened years ago, and they didn’t really escape.

In her first narrative, Violet is onstage during her last performance before achieving her dream of attending Julliard. But she feels broken: on stage, she loves people and they love her, but offstage she is haunted by dark memories and secrets. During intermission she visits the site where a crime took place three years earlier, leading to Orianna’s arrest. Enthralling prose and magical realism unite the stories of Amber, Violet, and Orianna, and explore complex issues of lies and truth, disadvantage and privilege, wrongdoing and justice, guilt and innocence, betrayal and friendship, vengeance and forgiveness.

Bones & All wrestles with similar issues, and it is not your typical horror story, nor is Maren Yearly your typical villain. Like most teenagers (and humans, for that matter) she wants to belong and feel normal, be loved and love herself; but a dark secret keeps her ashamed and alienated. In the opening scene, we learn that Maren devours people, starting with her babysitter when she was just a few years old. She tries to distance herself from everyone emotionally and physically, but if they do get close it’s not like she can’t not eat them. Then she and her mother have to move again…and again. While living with her secret is difficult, as long as she has her mom everything turns out okay; but she wakes up on her 16th birthday to discover her mom has abandoned her, leaving behind her birth certificate with her unknown father’s name. Hoping to find answers to her cannibalism, Maren’s search for her father turns into a much greater adventure.

From its poignant beginning to its unconventional ending, Bones & All will mess with you (in a good way). Horrifying and entertaining, loathsome and loving, cruel and forgiving, confining and adventurous, bizarre and normal: this novel will challenge your emotional footing, moral compass, and plot expectations. Normally heroism is about gaining justice by defeating “the monster”, but in this original and spectacular novel heroism is about Maren accepting and being loved for “the monster” she is. DeAngelis’ choice to narrate her novel from an antihero’s perspective, portraying Maren sympathetically and with integrity while she confronts the shame and loneliness of her crimes, challenges us to ponder many philosophical questions about what it means to be good versus evil, a villain rather than a hero, and guilty rather than innocent. When is killing someone or something considered a crime rather than a natural instinct or as necessary for survival? Maren will take your eyes and your heart, but I hope you enjoy being devoured by this deliciously dark novel as much as I did.

Alyssa Raymond loves to read, review and collect books–thanks to her many years as a bookseller. She can’t wait to share with you her favorite new and upcoming releases and thanks Edelweiss, NetGalley, the Boulder Book Store, and publishers for providing her with advance reading copies in exchange for her honest reviews.


For the Place-Obsessed, Take the Bent Road

Bent RoadWhen I first read Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael Lesy in high school, it changed my perception about what might lie beneath my small hometown; it also inspired me to visit as many pioneer cemeteries as I could. That nonfiction compendium of disturbing, odd, strange and deadly historical accounts in my state put to words the general unsettled feeling I experienced sometimes while passing crumbling barns, placid cows and lone lights across wide fields. In Cold Blood, the Truman Capote classic, gets this, too, of course. In film, the Coen Bros. Fargo, too, explores the greed, madness and violence beneath the calm, tight-lipped exterior assigned to the broad swath of land known as the Midwest. Things might seem fine – everyone might say it is – but they are definitely, absolutely not. But don’t tell anyone I told you so. Would you like some pie?

Bent Road by Lori Roy gets to this unsettled Midwest sensibility right away with a too-fast car flying down country roads. In the car are Celia Scott and her three children (Elaine, Daniel and Evie), who are returning to husband/father Arthur’s homeland after 20 years in Detroit. It is 1967. Arthur is driving the truck and is ahead of them. But the road is dark.

In the Scott’s extended family, a mystery surrounds an unexplained, unsolved death shortly before Arthur left, and all this ties back to current events and unearthed suspicions when something similarly traumatic happens in the town. Ultimately, Bent Road is a story about family silence and the lies and webs of connection that grow from trauma and distrust. Someone did something, and you’re pretty sure who the whole time, but you don’t know the whys or hows because no one will break the silence or ask the questions (at least not the right way). It’s heartwrenching and exhausting to read, and I couldn’t put it down. This is the kind of novel you stay up ’til 2 a.m. to finish and then just have extra coffee in the morning. Just the way I like it.

The book won an Edgar Allen Poe award in 2010, so it clearly comes with accolades. I recommend it to readers who appreciate a mystery that is as much about cultural expectations and tendencies that impact family systems as it is about the actual story. This story could only have unfolded the way it did if were set in that place; the quiet night of a big, treeless sky lends itself to wonder and worry. In Bent Road, Lori Roy unhinges the protected, stoic face of the prairie Midwest, revealing the lengths we go to protect a secret and what shame in secrets does to people. It’s as much about the story — a suspenseful family history with a bit of a whodunit – as it is about the place; back roads like the ones I grew up on are as much a foreboding figure as the shadows outside.

And there are shadows everywhere.


 

Jenny Rose Ryan is a writer, editor, marathoner, mother, gardener and a whole lot of other things. She has written for BUST, Bitch, xoJane, Persephone and other publications both famous and obscure. See her garden and house projects at diywarbox.tumblr.com. Everything else is a secret — after all, she grew up in the Midwest.