Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Clever Girls and Classy Lasses

It was hard being a lady back in the days of long skirts and horse-drawn carriages. You were expected to be modest and sweet and to blush delicately when in the company of men. It was unladylike to work or study or ask too many questions or show your ankles. So when an author places a heroine of keen intellect and rebellious spirit in the rigid societies of the 18th, 19th, or early 20th centuries, readers can be sure of one thing—this clever, classy lass is going to break all the rules. Bright and brainy even when weighed down by layers of petticoats and the conventions of their time, these young ladies are sure to save the day (whether the adventure be magical or mysterious) and still be home in time for tea.

The Ruby in the Smoke: A Sally Lockhart Mystery, Book 1 by Philip Pullman, 2008, Knopf Books, originally published 1985 (Historical Fiction/ Mystery/ Teen Fiction)

On a cold afternoon in 1872, sixteen-year-old Sally Lockhart walks into her deceased father’s London office. By the time she walks out again, Sally is deep in a compelling mystery fraught with murder, betrayal, deception, cursed jewels, secrets from the distant past, and a whole crew of Victorian scalawags and villains. There’s more to her father’s death than meets the eye. A horrifyingly creepy old woman is out for Sally’s blood. A mysterious message warns Sally of something called the Seven Blessings. Danger lurks around every corner and Sally herself is the key to unlocking all the intertwining mysteries that threaten her very life. But Sally is nothing if not resourceful, and with a few understanding friends of her own (including Frederick Garland, a charming young photographer), our intrepid heroine sets out to right wrongs and uncover truths. The reader, needless to say, becomes Sally’s ally right away. Author Philip Pullman, best known for the intricate fantasy worlds of His Dark Materials trilogy, knows full well how to create a heroine who his readers will follow through thick and thin; he also knows the subtle and masterful art of spinning a good old-fashioned rip-roaring adventure story. As the series continues, Sally continues to build a new life for herself—and solves a whole mess of thrilling, chilling, bump-in-the-night mysteries while she’s at it.

Sally Lockhart Mysteries by Philip Pullman
1. The Ruby in the Smoke
2. The Shadow in the North
3. The Tiger in the Well
4. The Tin Princess

The Diamond of Drury Lane: Cat Royal Adventures, Book 1 by Julia Golding, 2008, Roaring Brook Press (Historical Fiction/ Mystery/ Teen Fiction) 

Abandoned on the doorstep of London’s Theatre Royal in Drury Lane when she was an infant, Catherine “Cat” Royal has spent all the years of her young life reveling in the chaos of life behind the scenes. No one knows the ins and outs of her adopted home better; no one is better acquainted with the theatre’s many actors, musicians, workers, and players. And when newcomers enter the world of the Theatre Royal, no one is quicker to get to know them than curious, kind-hearted Cat. In 1790, the theatre employs a new prompter with a secret identity, features a young ex-slave who is a virtuoso violinist, and garners attention from an upper-crust young Lord and Lady who take a noted interest in Cat. As rival Covent Garden gangs vie for power in the streets outside, Cat and her beloved theatre folk find themselves embroiled in the affair of a hidden diamond—and dealing with angry audiences, political turmoil, social tensions, and all the gritty sights and sounds of a vividly portrayed life in late 18th century London. Lucky for readers, Cat has her freckled nose in everyone’s business and as many questions about the mysterious goings-on as there are seats in the house. Cat Royal is a heroine to rally to and her many scrapes, escapades, and adventures are worthy of any reader’s attention.

Cat Royal Adventures by Julia Golding
1. The Diamond of Drury Lane
2. Cat Among the Pigeons
3. Den of Thieves
4. Cat O’Nine Tails
5. Black Heart of Jamaica
6.  The Middle Passage (ebook)

A Spy in the House: The Agency, Book 1 by Y.S. Lee, 2010, Candlewick Press (Historical Fiction/ Mystery/ Teen Fiction)

In 1853 London, twelve-year-old orphan Mary Quinn, arrested for stealing, is about to be hung from the gallows. She’s resigned to her fate; her short life has been miserable and cruel. But then, at the last minute, Mary is rescued from certain death and installed at Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls. For the next five years, Mary is brought up to be an intelligent, resourceful, independent woman—a real rarity in her day and age. At seventeen, Mary is presented with another surprise: The Academy is really the Agency, a secret detective firm comprised entirely of female investigators. Mary rises to this new challenge and is soon on her first mission. Posing as a prim and proper companion to a spoiled society belle, Mary’s goal is to uncover a possible smuggling ring run by the master of the house, shipping merchant Mr. Thorold. But things quickly get out of hand. Everyone connected to the Thorold establishment has an agenda, even petulant Miss Angelica and especially enigmatic James Easton. Separating the good guys from the bad guys—while juggling Victorian England’s strict gender roles, racial discrimination, and social class consciousness—is no easy task. Lucky for the reader, it makes for a great adventure. Penned by author Y.S. Lee, an honest-to-goodness Victorian scholar, A Spy in the House is a richly detailed and entirely compelling historical mystery.

The Agency Trilogy by Y.S. Yee
1. A Spy in the House
2. The Body in the Tower
3. The Traitor and the Tunnel (due 2011)

Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos: Theodosia Throckmorton, Book 1 by R.L. LaFevers, 2007, Houghton Mifflin (Historical Fiction/ Fantasy/ Children’s Fiction) 

In 1906, eleven-year-old Theodosia Throckmorton roams the halls of London’s Museum of Legends and Antiquities. Her mother is an archeologist who sends precious artifacts to Theo’s father, the museum’s head curator. It’s something of a lonely life for a girl whose parents are so busy and important, but Theo is never bored—because the museum’s Egyptian wing is teaming with ancient objects of dark magic, and Theo is the only one who can sense the evil forces at work. With her trusty carpet bag of curse-breaking ingredients (it is surprising how effective wax, thread, and linen can be when the right words are chanted over them), Theo’s self-appointed mission is to de-curse the museum one artifact at a time. This task is severely complicated when her mother returns home with a new shipment of ancient Egyptian relics, one of which—the Heart of Egypt amulet—is pulsing with more dark magic than Theo has ever encountered before. Theo’s efforts to rid the museum of this object’s power lead her through a maze of dangerous secrets, German operatives, secret Brotherhoods, and international intrigue. Author R.L. LaFevers has combined history (including hints of the impending Great War), archeology, and Egyptian mythology to create a series about a plucky new heroine who is equal parts Nancy Drew and Indiana Jones and is sure to thrill readers of all ages.

1. Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos
2. Theodosia and the Staff of Osiris
3. Theodosia and the Eyes of Horus

The Case of the Missing Marquess: An Enola Holmes Mystery, Book 1 by Nancy Springer, 2006, Philomel Books (Historical Fiction/ Mystery/ Children’s Fiction)

When fourteen-year-old Enola Holmes discovers that her free-spirited mother has disappeared, she enlists the help of her much-older brothers Sherlock and Mycroft. To Enola’s dismay, the gentlemen theorize that their mother has run off with the family money. The brothers have a low opinion of women; Enola (whom they haven’t seen since in years) is little more than a pest. Enola’s concern for her mother changes to envy and she determines to find her wayward parent and join her. Making an escape is easy—Enola is a Holmes after all, with all the powers of observation that the family name implies—but the little sister is as attracted to crime as the older brothers. Soon Enola is involved in the case of a missing young nobleman and her desire to solve the mystery makes it that much harder to evade her tenacious big brother Sherlock. The reader immediately takes Enola’s side in the family feud—she’s an engaging, winsome narrator who steady gains in confidence and charm. Enola shows her pluck as she follows the clues her mother left, runs away in disguise, and makes her own way in the big bad city of London. With Enola Holmes, author Nancy Springer has created a gutsy girl sleuth who is more than capable of outwitting and outsmarting her infamous brothers and equally able to rally readers to her cause.

Enola Holmes Mysteries by Nancy Springer
1. The Case of the Missing Marquess
2. The Case of the Left-Handed Lady
3. The Case of Bizarre Bouquets
4. The Case of the Peculiar Pink Fan
5. The Case of the Cryptic Crinoline

Sorcery and Cecilia, Or, The Enchanted Chocolate Pot:  Being the Correspondence of Two Young Ladies of Quality Regarding Various Magical Scandals in London and the County by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer, 2003, Harcourt Books, originally published 1988 (Historical Fiction/ Fantasy/ Teen Fiction)

England, 1817. Cecelia is at home in the countryside while Cousin Kate is off to the big city for her first London season. The girls write to each other, and the book could be a comedy of manners based on the likes of Jane Austen—except that this is an England where magic is real. So when Kate blunders into a secret garden during a ceremony at the Royal College of Wizards and is nearly poisoned by a witch, and when Cecy spots a strange young man spying on her and finds a charm-bag under her brother’s bed, it’s precisely the sort of mystery that the clever cousins relish. And when the conundrum in London and the confusion in the country turn out to be related through a tangled web of magic spells, corrupt sorcerers, enchanted objects, and infuriating (but handsome) young men, Kate and Cecy must listen harder, creep quieter, and write more letters to uncover the clues and save the day. Sorcery and Cecelia is a collaborative novel written by two authors. Patricia C. Wrede wrote as Cecelia and Caroline Stevermer wrote as Kate, and the story grew out of the chapters they mailed back and forth to each other. The result is a charming and witty tale of wizards, chocolate pots, and Proper Etiquette in Polite Society. The (mis)adventures continue in two sequels to date.

Kate and Cecelia Mysteries by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer
1. Sorcery and Cecelia, or, The Enchanted Chocolate Pot
2. The Grand Tour, or, The Purloined Coronation Regalia
3. The Mislaid Magician, or, Ten Years After

The Illyrian Adventure:  A Vesper Holly Adventure, Book 1 by Lloyd Alexander, 2000, Puffin Books, originally published 1987 (Historical Fiction/ Fantasy/ Children’s Fiction)

When Professor Brinton Garrett arrives in Philadelphia with his wife in 1872 to take care of their new ward, the orphaned daughter of a fellow scholar, he expects to find a polite, somber, modest young lady. What he gets is sixteen-year-old Vesper Holly, a feisty, precocious wild-child who wins him over instantly, nicknames him “Brinnie,” and whisks him away on an adventure half-way across the world. Vesper longs to investigate first-hand her deceased father’s theories about the national and cultural legends of Illyria, a tiny country on the Adriatic Sea, and she won’t take “No” for an answer. When Vesper and Brinnie arrive in the itsy-bitsy ancient kingdom, they are immediately plunged into a centuries-old civil conflict between Illyria’s two proud ethnic groups. One adventure follows fast on the heels of another—Vesper and Binnie uncover a conspiracy against King Osman, have an exciting encounter with rebel leader Vartan, and search for long-lost national treasure. Along the way, Brinnie (narrating this first of five globe-trotting adventures by author Lloyd Alexander) learns to expect the unexpected from his new charge. Vesper is anything but the placid girl of the Victorian era. She’s brilliant, fearless, honest, and good-humored; she wears billowing trousers, is familiar with five languages, and can cuss in all of them. Smart, lively, and action-packed, The Illyrian Adventure and its fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants heroine are nearly impossible to resist.

Vesper Holly Adventures by Lloyd Alexander
1. The Illyrian Adventure
2. The El Dorado Adventure
3. The Drackenberg Adventure
4. The Jedera Adventure
5. The Philadelphia Adventure
6. The Xanadu Adventure

The Mysterious Howling:  The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, Book 1 by Maryrose Wood, 2010, Balzer and Bray Books (Historical Fiction/ Mystery/ Children’s Fiction)

Miss Penelope Lumley, smart, sensitive, resourceful, recent graduate of the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Ladies and just fifteen years old, is hired on the spot to serve as governess at luxurious Ashton Place. Only then is she allowed to meet her charges—three children who, due to their tendency to gnaw, nip, and growl, appear to have been raised by wolves. Lord Fredrick caught them on his estate when he was out hunting and as he says, “Finders keepers.” Penelope is not daunted by her task. She gets on swimmingly with Alexander, Beowulf, and Cassiopeia Incorrigible, as Lord Fredrick names them (or Alawooooo, Beowooooo, and Cassawoof, as they call themselves). The children respond to poetry and games of fetch, and Penelope feels sure that French and Latin cannot be far behind. But then Lady Constance drops a bombshell. The children are expected to appear at the mansion’s Christmas ball. This means table manners, fancy dress, and the ability to stand still when a squirrel is spotted. As Penelope and the kiddies rise to the challenge, they begin to discover that there are many dangerous secrets at Ashton Place. Author Maryrose Wood adds plenty of amusing details to her unusual premise—her heroine’s overactive imagination, the children’s endearing mischief-making, and a tone that is droll, cheeky, and thoroughly giggle-inducing. Readers will be howling for a sequel. 

The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place by Maryrose Wood
1. The Mysterious Howling
2. The Hidden Gallery (due 2011)

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie: A Flavia de Luce Mystery, Book 1 by Alan Bradley, 2009, Delacorte Press (Historical Fiction/ Mystery)

Eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce is a sly, secretive child. Her favorite hobby is concocting poisons in the upstairs laboratory of her old manor home. She has an extensive vocabulary, a knack for picking locks, and an unflappable sense of determination. So when a dead bird with a postage stamp stuck through its beak is found on the doorstep and a murdered man is found in the cucumber patch, Flavia rises to the occasion like no other detective, young or old, we’ve ever met before. Set in a small English village in 1950, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is chock-full of traditional mystery characters—the gossipy cook, the gardener with a mysterious past, the stoic police inspector. Then there’s Flavia’s family—a deceased mother whose presence still lingers, a passive father who is devoted to his stamp collection, and a pair of older sisters who cling to their own interests as obsessively as Flavia clings to her chemistry flasks and beakers. Of course out of all these finely-drawn characters, it is Flavia who takes the cake, saves the day, and wins the hearts of readers. This is author Alan Bradley’s first book, and besides winning the prestigious Canadian Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger Award, it is only the first of a series that stars this highly original girl sleuth.

Flavia de Luce Mysteries by Alan Bradley
1. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
2. The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag
3. A Red Herring without Mustard (due 2011)

Petronella Saves Nearly Everyone:  The Entomological Tales of Augustus T. Percival, Book 1 by Dene Low, 2009, Houghton Mifflin (Historical Fiction/ Mystery/ Teen Fiction)

Lords, ladies, foreign dignitaries, and the cream of Victorian society have turned out to celebrate Petronella Eunice Arbuthnot’s sixteenth birthday. But Petronella herself has bigger fish to fry. Her beloved guardian, the honorable Augustus T. Percival, has met with an unfortunate accident that has unexpected side effects—he has inadvertently swallowed a beetle and now has an insatiable appetite for insects. Such an impulse poses many opportunities for social embarrassment, particularly at an event as important as a young lady’s coming-out party. But things go even more awry when two particularly esteemed guests are kidnapped right from under Petronella’s elegant nose. Aided by her guardian (who keeps plucking moths from the air and popping them into his mouth), her best friend Jane (another pretty young thing with the heart of a prankster), and Jane’s well-connected big brother James (whose virile charms make her stomach do flips), Petronella plunges into a political mystery laden with ransom notes, midnight meetings, and hordes of oppressive Victorians determined to keep an upper-crust young lady from having the adventure of a lifetime. Petronella, needless to say, outwits them at every turn. Author Dene Low invests her debut novel with sly humor, charming period slang, and deliciously absurd details. Readers will be pleased as punch to learn that more adventures starring intrepid Petronella and her bug-hungry guardian are on their way.

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