Monday, 22 February 2010

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself; and maybe also the verb "to quip"

I will straight away make two things clear. First, I know the author of A Spy in the House; we went to the same uni for our PhDs, only she fled the academy with much more panache than I did. Clearly. See photo to right.

Second, she neither gave me this book nor asked me to review it. I bought it from the UK where it was released a fair bit earlier than it was in North America.

These two things out of the way, you may think you know where my fears and biases lay. Not so. First, I was terrified of reading this book because it was penned by someone I like immensely and I didn't know what I'd do if I didn't like her book. Yet, I knew I would like her book because of the hilarious and awesome tidbits she used to drop about Victorian lit when we shared an office. Nonetheless, it took me approximately 6 months to work up the courage to read it.

But where my bigger, much bigger, fear about this book lay actually had nothing to do with my knowing the author. It had to do with the fact that I've read only one other book of a similar genre, i.e., Victorianesque YA - Philip Pullman's The Ruby in the Smoke. I thought The Ruby in the Smoke was utter shite. I couldn't believe that the same guy who wrote the His Dark Materials trilogy and Clockwork and I Was a Rat! could write that. And yet he did, and so my thinking went something like "Dear gawd, if Pullman can't do it, no one can!!!" Mind, reading The Scarecrow and His Servant helped me get over my irrational belief in Pullman's literary invincibility...

It turns out that my anxiety was entirely wasted, for A Spy in the House is an extremely enjoyable book. I found it to be so enjoyable, in fact, that I did absolutely no work on Friday because I was reading it and couldn't put it down. The novel tells the story of Mary Quinn, a young girl rescued from being hanged by the neck until dead for theft at the age of 12, and how she's brought up in a girl's school designed to teach young women to learn to fend for themselves in a world in which women have remarkably few options. Mary, after 5 years in the school, is recruited into the Agency, which is an all female spy group. Their effectiveness lies in the fact that they can go into others' homes as governesses, ladies' companions, etc and find sensitive information that wouldn't be as likely to be dropped in front of a male spy, who would excite more suspicion. This novel - the first of a trilogy! - tells about Mary's first assignment.

A Spy in the House is a sort of classic detective story but one of the things that I love about it is that Lee also makes fun of, and upsets in various other ways, the very detective novel tropes she uses. So besides being a page turner in the gigantic ball of yarn way I so enjoy, A Spy in the House is also smart and funny and, because of Lee's knowledge of the darker sides of English Victorian history, by turns disturbing for reasons beyond the mystery itself. I'm really looking forward to the second book, which is due to be released in August.

Now, about the verb "to quip." I am not about to reveal that I like this novel except for the author's excessive use of this verb, of which I have an irrational but nonetheless deep-seated and unshakable loathing. Rather, I note it only because it's a verb much (over-)used in YA fiction generally, in my experience, and I noted with pleasure that it appears only once in A Spy in the House. Or, if it appeared more than once, it's a testament to how good this book is that I didn't notice it being used any more than that.

PS-And yes, in case you're wondering, I still plan to write about the third volume of Romola; I just haven't had several hours to sit in front of my computer figuring out what the hell to make of the novel's rather odd conclusion. But I will, I will!

7 comments:

heidenkind said...

Ha! Ruby In the Smoke was the first Pullman novel I read, and I remember thinking, "People think this guy is a good writer????" Luckily my friend convinced me to give him another go with His Dark Materials, otherwise I'd still think his stuff was total crap.

Yuri... said...

Hmm, Ruby in the Smoke was also my first Pullman. I read it in grade 6 or so, and remember really enjoying it. I had thought of revisiting it after HDM, which I may still do if the mood ever strikes...

Y S Lee said...

Colleen! I'm ecstatic that you enjoyed Spy, and even more so that you mentioned the meta-narrative jokes! (You're one of two.) I'm also relieved, because it means we can meet face-to-face once again instead of maintaining strict, fb-only interactions. Let's compel Sarah to read Romola and then discuss.

Colleen said...

heidenkind: Just imagine reading The Ruby in the Smoke after His Dark Materials! The horror! The horror!

Yuri: It won't please your modern and sophisticated reading palate - don't do eeeeeeet!

Ying: I had no idea that my not reading your book was what was keeping us apart. Mea culpa.

Y S Lee said...

Not really, Colleen; I blame the fact that I seem to be in Toronto only when you're in Kingston. But the Romola plan - yes?

Eva said...

This sounds like such fun! :D

Colleen said...

Ying: Yes, the Romola plan.

Eva: Tis fun!