Review: A Spy in the House by Y.S. Lee

Title: A Spy in the House (The Agency Bk. 1)
Author: Y.S. Lee
Publisher: Candlewick
Pub. Date: March 2010
Genre: YA Mystery
Keywords: Spies, Victorian London, Orphans, Secrets, Romance, Mystery
Pages: 335
Description (from GoodReads): 
Orphan Mary Quinn lives on the edge. Sentenced as a thief at the age of twelve, she’s rescued from the gallows by a woman posing as a prison warden. In her new home, Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls, Mary earns a singular education, fine manners, and a surprising opportunity. The school is a cover for the Agency – an elite, top-secret corps of female investigators with a reputation for results – and at seventeen, Mary’s about to join their ranks.

With London all but paralyzed by a noxious heat wave, Mary must work fast in the guise of a lady’s companion to infiltrate a rich merchant’s home with hopes of tracing his missing cargo ships. But the Thorold household is full of dangerous secrets, and people are not what they seem – least of all Mary.

Packed with action and suspense, and evoking the gritty world of Victorian London, Book One of the Agency series debuts a daring young detective who lives by her wits.

I sometimes find that novels with historical settings can be a bit dry, but Y.S. Lee has rekindled my love affair with Victorian England. A SPY IN THE HOUSE is a fast paced read, narrated by a feisty heroine, bursting with mystery, lies, greed, secret alliances, and, of course, romance.

With her quick wit and adventuresome spirit, Mary Quinn has quickly become one of my favorite main characters! A SPY IN THE HOUSE is set in Victorian London, where Mary’s secret life as a spy is one of the many traits that sets her apart from her peers. Even with her schooling and fine manners, she doesn’t fit the mold of a typical Victorian woman. Her history is a bit blurry, her origins are unknown, and she’s bursting with opinions. Mary definitely stands out in Victorian London, but her character is so vibrant that I believe she’d have a difficult time blending into any setting.

I admire Lee’s ability to use just the right amount of foreshadowing: too much and a novel will lose much of its mysteriousness, too little and the reader will become frustrated and completely confused. There were enough clues present that I could determine some of the lies and secrets, but the biggest aspect of the mystery remained a riddle for most of the novel. I was also impressed with Lee’s ability to weave seemingly independent plot lines into a complex and compelling mystery, while still keeping the mystery intact.

I was thrilled to discover that there was a romantic plot line in A SPY IN THE HOUSE. Mary is forced to hide in a wardrobe when she is nearly discovered poking through an off-limits office, only to find the wardrobe is already occupied. One can assume that if you meet a man in a wardrobe, he probably isn’t the boring sort. Mary has met her match in James Easton, who, against his better judgment, is intrigued by “Miss Closet.” The conversations between James and Mary were humorous and tension-filled; the chemistry between the two is evident from the moment they tumble out of the wardrobe.

James is one of my favorite male characters/romantic leads. Not only is he funny, smart, and mysterious, I always end up picturing him as James McAvoy. This definitely enhances my reading experience.

I like mystery and historical novels, but I don’t usually love them. Somehow, I have come to love the Mary Quinn mysteries. I’ve read the next novel, A BODY AT THE TOWER, which will be released in August, and it is just as good, if not better, than the first installment. If you have any interest in mysteries, kickass girl spies, or good-looking boys in wardrobes, you need to read this book!

Grade: A+

Interview: Mara Purnhagen (Author of Tagged!)

Mara Purnhagen is a debut YA author. Her novel, TAGGED, is a quick and satisfying read filled with mysterious gorilla graffiti and a complicated love story.

Mara Purnhagen cannot live without a tall caramel latte, her iPod, or a stack of books on her night stand. She has lived in Aurora, Illinois; Kalamazoo, Michigan; Dayton, Ohio and Duncan, South Carolina. She presently lives outside Cleveland, Ohio with her family and two cats.

Visit Mara’s website for more information!
Give a short description or statement about TAGGED that will lure in readers.

Gorillas change Kate’s life in more ways than one.

What inspired the premise of TAGGED?
A British graffiti artist, a strange reality TV show, and my husband’s work bench.

TAGGED features a bit of a love story, in addition to the mystery at the forefront of the plot. Kate doesn’t end up with her love interest right away and there is some drama as well. Even after all has been explained, Kate doesn’t immediately swoon and fall into his arms; she can’t automatically forget about how she was hurt. I think this is refreshing in a YA novel, as it is more true to life than some other novels portray. Comments?
Relationships are messy, and I think if they don’t begin well there’s little chance that they will end well. Kate doesn’t have much experience, but she’s been burned once before and doesn’t want to go through that again. I wanted her to have the confidence to wait for something better than was being offered to her, to decide that she was worth a better beginning. The guy was right but the timing wasn’t, and she recognizes that.

I found the TAGGED’s characters to very realistic; the dialogue and motivations were very close to how my friends and I would interact. I am appreciative that you accomplished this without using pop culture references blatantly throughout the novel. How do you feel about the use of pop culture references in YA literature?
Often times, pop culture references draw me out of an otherwise great story. Sometimes it’s because I can’t relate to the reference. Other times it’s because the reference is so dated! For example, I was reading a book in which the main character was looking forward to the release of her favorite band’s newest CD. Instead of making up a band, the author chose to use a real one. The CD mentioned had been released three years before the book was published and the band itself was kind of a fleeting group. The end result was that the book felt out of touch. However, I do think there are ways to include pop culture without hurting the story. If you can make a particular obsession central to your character’s personality (say, a devoted Radiohead fan who quotes song lyrics every chance she gets), it can work.

Can you tell us anything about your next YA novels/projects?
I’m working on the third book in my Past Midnight series. The first book will be released on September 1, and I’m finishing final edits on it now. I submitted Book 2 last week. The series revolves around Charlotte Silver, whose parents are paranormal investigators. They debunk ghost stories for a living. No one in the family believes in ghosts—until something happens to Charlotte that they can’t explain.

The Hiding Spot is dedicated to my personal hiding spot, books. What place, person, or activity is your personal hiding spot?
When my house feels crowded, I try to escape to my local library, which is sunny and comfortable and the ideal place for me to read—except when someone’s cell phone goes off.

Thank you, Mara!

For more information about TAGGED, visit GoodReads and Amazon!

Review: Anxious Hearts by Tucker Shaw

Title: Anxious Hearts
Author: Tucker Shaw
Publisher: Amulet
Pub. Date: Out Now, 3/2010
Genre: YA
Main Themes: Love, Friendship, Loss
Pages: 272
Plot (from back of arc):
“Eva and Gabe explore the golden forest of their seaside town in Maine, tracing the footsteps of two teens, Evangeline and Gabriel, who lived in the same idyllic woods more than one hundred years ago. On the day that Evangeline and Gabriel were to be wed, their village was attacked and the two were seperated. And now, in the present, Gabe has mysteriously disappeared from Eva.
A dreamlike tale of romance and unrequited love inspired by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic love poem “Evangeline,” ANXIOUS HEARTS avows that, even when lost somewhere on life’s journey, true love can be found and there is a way home again.”

ANXIOUS HEARTS left me lovestruck. It is a relatively short novel, but it pulled me in completely and had an almost cinematic quality.

I will admit to liking the present day parts of the novel narrated by Eva better than the ones set in the past and narrated by Gabriel. I liked the epic quality of Gabriel and Evangeline’s story, but I didn’t feel particularly connected to those two characters. Plus, Gabriel was a little bit too intense for my tastes. I appreciated the fact that his love for Evangeline drove him to such great lengths, but his interest in her before he even knew her bordered on obsession. On the other hand, I found Eva and Gabe’s story almost comforting. Their passionate, sudden relationship began in high school, which I find very true to life. Many high school relationships flare to life suddenly and burn brightly. The difference between most high school relationships and Eva and Gabe’s is that, even after losing one another for quite some time, their love survived.

In the years that Gabe is absent from Eva’s life, she does not wither away or pull away from life. Gabriel, on the other hand, nearly died in his quest to regain his beloved Evangeline. I’m glad that Shaw wrote Eva as a strong character who carried on with life even after losing the love of her life. Eva does go through a difficult time after Gabe goes missing, but she eventually puts the shattered pieces of her life back together and forges on. I think that is a wonderful message to send, especially in a novel that could easily take the route of lovers falling apart when seperated. I like that Eva could be a girl in love and still be resilient.

Grade: A-

Cover Comments:
I love the colors of ANXIOUS HEARTS’ cover. They remind me of autumn, which has long been my favorite season. I imagine that it is Evangeline on the cover, rather than Eva. I think it will look beautiful on the bookstore shelves – and my own shelf!

Review: Brightly Woven by Alexandra Bracken

Title: Brightly Woven
Author: Alexandra Bracken
Publisher: EgmontUSA
Pub. Date: 3/23/2010
Genre: YA
Main Themes: Fantasy, Wizard, Love, Opposites Attract, Good vs. Evil
Pages: 368
Plot (from GoodReads):

Sydelle Mirabil is living proof that, with a single drop of rain, a life can be changed forever. Tucked away in the farthest reaches of the kingdom, her dusty village has suffered under the weight of a strangely persistent drought. That is, of course, until a wizard wanders into town and brings the rain with him.

In return for this gift, Wayland North is offered any reward he desires—and no one is more surprised than Sydelle when, without any explanation, he chooses her. Taken from her home, Sydelle hardly needs encouragement to find reasons to dislike North. He drinks too much and bathes too little, and if that isn’t enough to drive her to madness, North rarely even uses the magic he takes such pride in possessing. Yet, it’s not long before she realizes there’s something strange about the wizard, who is as fiercely protective of her as he is secretive about a curse that turns his limbs a sinister shade of black and leaves him breathless with agony. Unfortunately, there is never a chance for her to seek answers.

Along with the strangely powerful quakes and storms that trace their path across the kingdom, other wizards begin to take an inexplicable interest in her as well, resulting in a series of deadly duels. Against a backdrop of war and uncertainty, Sydelle is faced with the growing awareness that these events aren’t as random as she had believed—that no curse, not even that of Wayland North, is quite as terrible as the one she herself may carry.

Generally, I am not a fan of YA fantasy novels. I appreciate the attempt to write a great YA fantasy, but I personally feel that YA often does not allow enough pages to fully develop the characters and plot. When it comes to fantasy, I often want almost too much detail. My favorite fantasy novels are often at least 3 times the length of an average YA book and have 5 or more volumes. I know the worlds within those pages inside and out. It seems, however, that Alexandra Bracken has disproved my theory about fantasy and YA  and, for once, I was happy to be wrong.

I was relieved to see that Bracken delved into the magical elements of her story. Many times the details of that aspect are glazed over to focus on the bigger picture, but I really enjoy the background information – it makes the story more realistic to me. The wizardry in BRIGHTLY WOVEN has some unique twists that set it apart from other similar novels which is always commendable.

BRIGHTLY WOVEN has been marketed with a strong emphasis on the romantic plot line, but I didn’t really love that part of the story. I’m definitely glad it was included, but it moved a little bit quick for my tastes. I think it could have been written a little more smoothly or portrayed a bit differently. I don’t really know how to explain it… I was bothered by how angry Sydelle was at Wayland in the beginning of the novel. Some of the actions and motivations didn’t add up as neatly as a I would have liked. I will admit that I their relationship had grown on my by the end of the novel.

Grade: B

Cover Comments:
I really like the colors used in the cover and the detailing along the bottom of the cover. The cover model looks gorgeous… except for the hair. That’s the only part of the cover that I’m a little iffy on. I haven’t seen it yet in person though, so it might look a little different.

Interview & Contest: Erica S. Perl (Author of Vintage Veronica!)

I’m thrilled to have Erica Perl, author of the newly released YA novel Vintage Veronica, here at The Hiding Spot today! Erica has kindly answered some questions about VV, a novel that swept me off my feet and left me anxious for her future novels!

The Interview:

Give a short description or statement about VINTAGE VERONICA that will lure in readers.

Veronica Walsh’s summer job at a vintage clothing store is a dream come true because she can spend her days separating the one-of-a-kind gem garments from the Dollar-a-Pound duds without having to deal with people. But when two outrageous salesgirls urge her to spy on a mysterious and awkward stock boy, Veronica’s summer takes a turn for the weird. She may have to come out of hiding and follow something even riskier for the first time: her heart.

What inspired Veronica’s story?
A vintage clothing store called The Garment District was my inspiration, and some of the details of The Clothing Bonanza, where Veronica works, definitely came from that. The story I wanted to tell, about feeling insecure and vulnerable and trying to hide from having to deal with other people, seemed particularly compelling in an unusual setting like this. I like the juxtaposition of trash-and-treasures clothing with the story of Veronica trying to figure out who and what to value, including herself.

Veronica is not a trusting person and, at the beginning of the novel, she has a difficult time letting people in. It is almost as if she doesn’t want to be noticed. At the same time, she has an outrageous fashion sense that most definitely turns heads. What do these opposing actions reveal about Veronica?
Ooo, good question! I think Veronica has this desire to reject people before they have a chance to reject her. So she dresses kind of in-your-face for two reasons: 1) she loves what she wears, so she stubbornly wears it even though she knows some people may laugh at her; and 2) being laughed at gives her an excuse to put up her guard and avoid real relationships. I applaud the first reason, but feel sad for the second one.

Veronica refers to the “awkward stock boy” where she works as “the Nail,” which was inspired by a song. How did you come to decide on this nickname for Len?
It was actually inspired by a song, just like Veronica says. But in my mind, “the nail” became the term for a person who lets other people walk all over them. So it fit Len really well. Although I think the reason Veronica hates to see Len act this way is because she knows she’s actually a lot like him.

Can you tell us anything about your next YA novels/projects?
I’m currently working on another novel, and I’m very excited about it, but I should probably leave it at that.

The Hiding Spot is dedicated to my personal hiding spot, books. What place, person, or activity is your personal hiding spot?
Definitely books. I think they are the best places to lose oneself! !

Go HERE to read my review of VINTAGE VERONICA.

And, if VV sounds like you’re kind of novel, be sure to go HERE and enter for a chance to win your very own copy! The contest will run until April 15th and is only open to those will US and Canada mailing addresses.

Thank you, Erica, for taking the time to answer my questions and for donating a copy of the novel for one lucky winner! 🙂

Review: Vintage Veronica by Erica S. Perl

Title: Vintage Veronica
Author: Erica S. Perl
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Pub. Date: 3/9/2010
Genre: YA
Main Themes: Vintage shops, Weight issues, First impressions, Second Chances
Pages: 272
Plot (from GoodReads):
Veronica Walsh is 15, fashion-minded, fat, and friendless. Her summer job in the Consignment Corner section (Employees Only!) of a vintage clothing store is a dream come true. There Veronica can spend her days separating the one-of-a-kind gem garments from the Dollar-a-Pound duds, without having to deal with people. But when two outrageous yet charismatic salesgirls befriend her and urge her to spy on and follow the mysterious and awkward stock boy Veronica has nicknamed the Nail, Veronica’s summer takes a turn for the weird. Suddenly, what began as a prank turns into something else entirely. Which means Veronica may have to come out of hiding and follow something even riskier for the first time: her heart.

When I first read the plot summary for VINTAGE VERONICA, I classified it as a cute and didn’t really expect it to have any depth, but that first impression was entirely off! Erica Perl has written a novel full of quirky characters that captured my heart and has managed to tell a story that the Veronica in all of us can relate to.

The setting and characters of VV were colorful and utterly unforgettable. The only way that I can really describe the feel of the book as is off beat. The easiest way I can describe the novel is by referencing Ellen Page films, like JUNO and WHIP IT. The characters in those films are quirky and seem to stick in your mind as if  held there by superglue.  Veronica is the star of the novel, but I was most drawn to Len, the mysterious and awkward stock boy. He is so much more than what he seems when the reader is briefly introduced to him at the beginning of the novel. I loved discovering the magic of Len as Veronica spends more time with him. I really liked that he isn’t the normal heartthrob character or the tortured bad boy; he’s just Len – and that’s all he needs to be.

Given that I adore Len, it is understandable that I’m a fan of the romance between him and Veronica. However, it wasn’t simply my feelings about Len’s character that pulled me into their love story, it was the truthfulness. Len and Veronica’s relationship is not perfect, but it is awkward, painful, and so, so tender. There are some romances that take you by storm and you are so totally enraptured in one another that there really isn’t very much awkwardness. This is not the case in VV, partly because Veronica tries so hard to keep a cool head about the whole situation and doesn’t allow herself to be overwhelmed by her feelings, in the beginning at least. And when one overanalyzes as much as Veronica, there is always going to be some uncomfortable moments. I think that in real life, people generally fit into that second category, so I found this love story particularly touching.

Ratings (out of 10):
Plot: 10
Characters: 10
Writing: 10
Romance: 10
Originality: 10
Total: 50/50 (A!)

Cover Comments: I do think that the cover of VINTAGE VERONICA is cute, but I’m not sure how eye-catching it is. It caught my eye, obviously, but I like scrapbooking, which the cover is reminscent of. I don’t think I can make a totally informed opinion about this one, since I haven’t seen it in bookstore yet. I’m curious to see if the cover will eventually change though, as they sometimes do.

Interview: Amy Brecount White (Author of Forget-Her-Nots!)

Please welcome Amy Brecount White, the author of the newly released FORGET-HER-NOTS, to The Hiding Spot! After watching the novel’s book trailer and reading my quick interview with Amy, be sure to collect your virtual flower! For more information about the SPREAD THE FLOWER LOVE Tour and Amy’s stops, see here!
Give a short statement about FORGET-HER-NOTS that will lure in readers.

Are you attracted by the scent or sight of flowers? Have you ever felt a rush of specialness when someone gave you a bloom? Experience the fun and joy of first love, as Laurel discovers and tries – not always successfully — to master her mysterious flower powers.

[But remember, it’s not a fantasy novel, more like magic realism.]

Your main character’s name is Laurel… is there any particular reason you chose that name?
Definitely. It’s part of the flower lore of Laurel’s life. Her mom, Lily, chose that name as a clue to her powers. In the language of flowers, laurel means “glory” and mountain laurel means “ambition.” Lily had high hopes for her daughter’s floral abilities.

If you were putting together a bouquet that represented yourself, which flowers would you use?
Great question!
-Rosemary for remembrance, because I’d like to be a memorable part of my friends, family, and readers’ lives.
-Mountain laurel for ambition, because I do want to be the best writer I can be.
-Blue violet for faithfulness because I am a loyal friend
-Poppy for fantastic extravagance, because it’s on my cover, and I love to have fun.
-Hyacinth for sport, games, play. I coach my daughter’s soccer team and love to be outside, preferably on a bike or rollerblades.
-White bellflower, because I’m grateful to God, my family, and all my readers for their support of me and my dream!!

Can you give us any details about your next novel(s)?
Yes! I’m writing a contemporary novel called STRING THEORIES. It’s about the physics of relationships, love and lust, and getting even. After that I’d love to write a companion novel to FHN in which the characters are older and get involved with the intrigue of orchids.

The Hiding Spot is dedicated to my personal hiding spot, books. What, where, or who is your hiding spot?
I’m going to be unoriginal and say books are mine, too! We moved all over the country when I was younger, so books have always been a source of stability and refuge for me. I read before bed – often staying up way too late! – but I need that escape into another world. I love experiencing other countries, times, people and places – all through a book!

For more information about Amy or to say hi, visit her website or look her up on Twitter!

And last, but not least, be sure to collect your virtual flower!!