Category Archives: Book Recommendations

Sherlock Holmes, from the Adult Shelf

The House of Silk– Anthony Horowitz.  (Hachette, 2011, 295 pages.) Spooky atmosphere and satisfyingly suspenseful plot twists would make this a good Victorian mystery, even if Sherlock and Watson were not at the center of it all. Weaving together two seemingly disconnected cases, and hinting at a much larger conspiracy, Horowitz tells an exciting and engrossing tale. The best part about this, though, is how well he captures Doyle’s Victorian prose style and language, and the characterizations of Holmes and Watson.

The Italian Secretary: A Further Adventure of Sherlock Holmes, by Caleb Carr. (Carroll & Graf, 2005,256 pages.)  No surprise that the author of The Alienist has a terrific ear for recreating Conan Doyle’s language, while telling a story that could fit into Doyle’s world. Ghostly, Gothic touches and a very nice haunted mansion idea.

The Final Solution by Michael Chabon. (Harper Collins 2004, 175 pages.) Here, Holmes is an older gentleman, but still as sharp as ever. He meets Linus, a young boy who is a Jewish refugee, staying with the neighbors. Linus’s parrot has a fondness for rattling off number sequences in German. When the parrot goes missing, and one of the neighbor’s boarders is found murders, Holmes agrees to come out of retirement. There’s something nostalgic and sweet about this story. Whether it’s the way Holmes gruffly befriends the young boy, or the inclusion of the parrot, it’s a gentler atmosphere than most Holmes-inspired tales.

Sherlock Holmes and the Ice Palace Murders, by Larry Millett (Penguin, 1999, 336 pages). It took a while to get used to the idea of Sherlock Holmes visiting America, or in the sparse, somewhat frontier setting of Minnesota. I picked this up at the library by chance. (And had the entirely unworthy thought of comparing it to the Book of Mormon, in that it took literary figures far from their accepted setting, to construct a wholly new mythology.) The mystery and characterization grabbed me, though. I had no idea there were others in Millett’s series. I might read them.

The Art of Detection- Laurie R. King (Bantam, 2007 459 pages). Detective Kate Martinelli investigates a murder within a community of Sherlock Holmes-obsessed enthusiasts. I wish Laurie R. King would write more Kate Martinelli books. I know she’s done extensive volumes of her own Holmes adaptation, starring Mary Russell, but I find the idea of Married!Holmes decidedly creepy. It verges on fanfiction.

Sherlock and Watson, image from the BBC.

And then of course, there’s the BBC Sherlock, bringing Sherlock and Watson into the 21st century, with text messages, riffs on classic cases, and of course Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch. They’re so good, it’s hard not to picture those actors when I’m reading anything Holmes


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Out Of Print (But Really Good) Historical Fiction

The process by which books go out of print mystifies me. While compiling lists of book recommendations for the subgenres featured here, I turned to my own bookshelf for inspiration. And I found that several of my very favorites are out of print. (Or, at least, lists them as “available from these sellers,” which is a pretty good indication.) So, if you see these books at a library, or a secondhand book store, snap them up!

Quest for A Maid, Frances Mary Hendry, Image from GoodReadsQuest For a Maid by Frances Mary Hendry (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1992, 288 pages) Meg Wright is nine years old when she sees her sister, Inge, kill the King of Scotland. Who is several miles away. Witchcraft, a sea and shipwreck adventure. Also great characters: Meg, whose perspective captures the historical details, her sister’s magic and decidedly gray-area morals, adorable young Davy Spens, and the Maid of Norway, a young girl at the center of all kinds of scheming and conspiracy, just because she’s born to be queen.


Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park (Puffin, 1981, 204 pages) The setting and plot alternate between present day New Zealand Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park, Cover image from GoodReadsand Victorian England, so this novel gets bonus points for time travel. Sullen and awkward, Abigail Kirk knows she doesn’t fit in with her classmates. She’s a shy loner, and she likes to make her own dresses. A piece of antique lace she sews onto a dress transports her to Victorian England, into the lives of the Bow family, who won’t let her leave, because they think she’s the “Stranger” destined to save the family. The way Abigail resists, and then, is drawn into their lives, is beautifully written. I remember reading this in sixth grade, and being completely in love with Jonah Bow, one of the characters from the past. It also stands up to rereading.

A Witch Across Time by Gilbert B. Cross (Athenaeum, 1990, 224 pages).  Spending the summer on Martha’s Vineyard while recovering from an emotional breakdown, Hannah encounters the ghost of a young woman who was falsely executed as a witch in 1692. The lines between the past and Hannah’s present begin to blur, as Hannah gets haunted by this girl. I remember Hannah hallucinating, and her family worried that she was crazy. I also remember being scared out of my deliciously shivering tween mind. In high school, I was in a one-act play that had more or less exactly this “girl haunted by a witch, people think she’s crazy” ghost plot. Crossroads, I think it was called.

Doing research for this site, I ran across dozens of enticing books I haven’t read, only to check at the NYPL, and find them, yep, out of print! Boo! Hiss! Or maybe British-therefore-hard-to-find-in-bookstores-here. That also happens.

Some hard-to-find-books I haven’t read yet:

Gatty’s Tale– Kevin Crossley-Holland. I think this is less out of print than it is British.

More to be added… what are your out of print or hard to find favorites?

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TBR List

Prisoners in the Palace- Michaela McColl.

Interview with McColl here

The Montmorency books by Eleanor Updale

I should probably read more of the books on this GoodReads list.

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The Agency Series by Y.S. Lee

The following is a paper written for class, about a YA series, its genre characteristics, appeal factors, and potential use in readers’ advisory.

Cover art for the Agency taken from GoodReadsThere are three books in The Agency series. The first book, A Spy in the House (Candlewick, 2010, 352 pages), tells the story of Mary Lang in London, in 1853. Mary is a twelve-year-old girl who is about to be hanged for breaking and entering a house. Instead, she is rescued and given what feels like a miraculous second chance. Renamed Mary Quinn, she is brought to Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy, where she is given a home and an education.

The story picks up again three years later, when Mary is working at the Academy, teaching younger girls. Although she knows that the opportunity she’s been given to be an educated woman is unique and wonderful, Mary has become restless. She approaches her teachers for guidance, and discovers that Academy works in partnership with the Agency, a network of female spies. The social structures of Victorian London mean that a young woman in domestic service will largely be ignored, allowing her to hear sensitive and useful information.

Mary’s first assignment is to pose as a wealthy young lady’s companion, in the household of the Thorold family in London. The Agency wants to gather preliminary information about Mr. Thorold’s shipping business and financial dealings, before a more seasoned agent comes to take Mary’s place. Although Mary is assigned to observe passively and maintain her role as a lady’s companion and maid, she struggles with her impatience on a number of levels. Mr. Thorold and his secretary, Michael Gray discuss business at home, so Mary can’t pick up needed tidbits by listening in the drawing room or eavesdropping. Angelica is spoiled and resentful of having Mary as an assigned companion, and does nasty little things to Mary, like digging her fingernails into a burn on Mary’s hand. Angelica is engaged to be married to George Easton, a marriage more about a business alliance between the Thorold family and the Easton family. And Mrs. Thorold is sickly, only leaving the house to visit her doctors, which is unique for a woman of her class, but dismissed as a wealthy hypochondriac’s affectation.

Bored and impatient, Mary does some sleuthing of her own in Thorold’s study.  The mysterious gentleman who catches her, while also snooping there, turns out to be James Easton, George’s brother, who is equally suspicious of Mr. Thorold’s financial dealings. Although Mary doesn’t reveal herself as a spy, she and James form a wary partnership, bickering and bantering as their search for clues takes them all over London, to Thorold’s warehouses and to explore a possible connection with the Lascars (a home for aged sailors.) Along with the clues of the evolving mystery, there is also a subplot involving Angelica eloping with Michael Gray, Thorold’s secretary. There are hints of a revelation about Mary’s past and her ancestry having something to do with China, ripe for exploration in further books in the series.  In the climactic confrontation, it emerges that Mrs. Thorold was, in fact, the mastermind and villainous saboteur, instead of the invalid she appeared to be.

In terms of genre, A Spy in the House predominantly fits the characteristics of historical fiction, although it also incorporates some elements of suspense and mystery, particularly in terms of pacing and mood. The plot hinges on the setting and frame, in terms of culture and in terms of geography.  The idea of an Agency of trained female spies relies on justifying an exception to the historically accurate gender norms in place in Victorian London, to allow for Mary’s boldness and intelligence in piecing together clues. In interviews, author Y.S. Lee describes the conscious decision to create the anachronistic Agency to allow for a resourceful and brave female detective character, as well as to allow some freedom to be playful and push the confines of historical fiction and mystery as genres. Descriptions of the streets of London, smothering and stinking in the grip of a heat wave contribute to the claustrophobic atmosphere that prods Mary to take action and push the confines of her assignment with the Thorolds. While Joyce Saricks describes historical fiction as expansive in scope, taking place over years or decades, the scope of this novel is just the few days of Mary’s assignment. However, the meticulous descriptions of setting keep the pacing more measured. Genre elements of suspense include the narrow time frame of the plot, and a certain amount of mood. Focusing almost exclusively on Mary’s perspective, and on the progress she makes in piecing together clues grounds this story more as a historical mystery.

The level of detail of the historical descriptions, and some of the more complex choreography of the action scenes would make this book a good fit for an older middle grade reader, around 6th or 7th grade, and up, and possibly a girl reader because of the tight focus on Mary’s perspective. Because the focus is on capturing the overall atmosphere of Victorian London to use as a backdrop for the mystery, rather than tying to a specific historical event, it makes more sense to categorize this as a book for pleasure reading rather than something assigned in school. (It might make a fun title for a summer reading list, though.)

Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockheart series, beginning with The Ruby in The Smoke brings a female protagonist into Victorian London, incorporating a suspenseful mood and some mysterious plot elements. The Gemma Doyle books, beginning with A Great And Terrible Beauty, by Libba Bray, incorporate Victorian England and a mystery with spooky fantasy elements. A reader more interested in the spy agency idea than the Victorian setting will enjoy the Gallagher Girl books by Ally Carter, starting with I’d Tell You, But Then I’d Have To Kill You, because they incorporate the idea of a special spy-training school for girls in a modern setting. Because they incorporate a less urban setting, with more fantasy and more arcane styles of language, the Dido Twite books by Joan Aiken might be a stretch, but could fit for a fan of Y.S. Lee.

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Spotlight on Medieval and Renaissance

The similarities in the setting, culture, level of technology, and the appeal of the stories themselves make a case for a broad look across Medieval and Renaissance fiction set in Europe.

These books use castles as backdrops for tales of court intrigue and a rich tapestry of historical detail.

Collecting Medieval, Tudor era, and Renaissance historical fiction together in one category factors in the appeal of the similarities in the setting, but it is historically inaccurate, and somewhat unfair to the number of books available in the genre. Honnold and Rabey each treat the time periods more separately.

Authors: Anne Rinaldi, Karen Cushman, Rosemary Sutcliff, Kevin Crossley Holland (also does Arthurian fantasy)

Book recommendations

The Gentleman Poet: A Novel of Love, Danger, and Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
Kathryn Johnson
Avon 2010, 319 pages, age 13 and upThe Gentleman Poet, image from GoodReads
In 1609,  Elizabeth Persons, a servant girl, is shipwrecked in the Caribbean, along with a handful of other would-be settlers. She makes a place for herself in their small community, with a talent for cooking the foods of their new land.( A few historical recipes are included.) Elizabeth befriends Will Strachey, a historian who is writing the account of their travel.  If the title didn’t give away Will’s identity, his writing, and the Shakespeare references dotted throughout the text, would. Will even calls Elizabeth Miranda.

Grave Mercy cover image from GoodreadsGrave Mercy
Robin LaFevers
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2012, 549 pages
After escaping an abusive father and an equally abusive new husband, Ismae finds refuge at the Convent of St. Mortain, where she is trained as an assassin, carrying out the god’s justice in the service of Brittany and the realm. Handmaidens of Mortain dispense the god’s justice by killing when they see their victim’s marque, a shadow on the body.  Ismae’s powers to sense death and speak to the recently dead give this a distinct spooky fantasy feel, and there are also strong elements of romance.

The Plague, Joanne Dahme, image from GoodReadsThe Plague– Joanne Dahme (Running Press, 2009, 272 pages.) At first, Nell thinks that looking like Princess Joan, enough to serve as her double, is a stroke of luck. Nell can rise above her lowly station, and experience life in the royal court. But then the plague comes to the royal entourage, and Nell’s life and future are endangered. The Black Prince, Joan’s ominously named brother, wants Nell to pose as Joan instead, and marry the Prince of Castile to seal an allegiance between their two kingdoms. With the aid of her friends, Nell manages to escape in secret, in this historical adventure. (Readers 7th grade and up.)

Proud Taste of Scarlet and Miniver image from GoodReadsA Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver– E.L. Konigsburg (1973, reissued by Aladdin in 2011, 208 pages) fictionalizes the life and memories of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Eleanor and others from her life, and her life with Henry, tell the story of life at court and her marriage, interspersed with scenes of Eleanor pacing heaven impatiently, waiting for Henry to arrive. The story is rich in both historical detail and character detail, making Eleanor’s voice real. A great read for middle grade readers.

Second Mrs. Gioconda image from GoodReadsThe Second Mrs. Gioconda, also by E.L. Konigsburg, (Simon Pulse 2011, 160 pages) gives a name and a personality to the figure of the Mona Lisa, as Leonardo DaVinci paints her portrait. A 14-year old boy, DaVinci’s apprentice, anchors the young teen reader to the story.

From the Adult Shelf

The Crown, by Nancy Bilyeau, image from GoodReadsThe Crown
Nancy Bilyeau
Touchstone, 2012, 405 pages.
Joanna Stafford, a young novice nun, sneaks away from her convent because her favorite cousin is about to be burned at the stake. Joanna and her father are captured in the uproar that follows. To win her freedom and her father’s, Joanna must begin a secret search for an important religious relic. Spooky, a little bit gory, with plenty of suspense and adventure, Adult Books 4 Teens also picked this as a good bet for high school students.


Other genre possibilities: In terms of setting, imagery, even some elements of plot and character, there’s plenty of room for interplay between fantasy readers and readers drawn to this historical period. Arthurian legend has some ties to history as well as plenty of adaptations in the fantasy genre. Here’s an Arthurian list.

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Spotlight on: World War II

Introducing reviews of noteworthy YA novels set in World War II, an article in School Library Journal summed up the appeal of World War II fiction beautifully:

Though textbooks are full of facts about World War II, historical fiction often offers up more teachable moments. By the time students get to middle or high school, many have been introduced to World War II and the Holocaust throughThe Diary of Anne Frank. Expand their knowledge of this global conflict and tragedy with these titles that look at the war from a variety of perspectives. –School Library Journal, 11/4/2009

Historical novels focusing on World War II can be full of adventure and intensity in pacing, tone and even imagery. The time period makes a good setting for fast-paced adventures incorporating some of the intellect puzzles of mystery, and sometimes a mood of suspense: helping with the war effort, uncovering spies, cracking codes, and even flying into battle. Teens are likely to read novels describing the harsh and brutal realities of deprivation and imprisonment during the Holocaust as part of school curricula, rather than as pleasure reading. Although teens are less likely to choose these novels for pleasure reading, they offer an important way to connect emotionally, and grapple with understanding a troubling time period.

Book recommendations:

Mare's War Cover art taken from GoodreadsMare’s War by Tanita S. Davis 
Knopf, 2009, 352 pages. .An inter-generational storyline is the basis for “Mare’s War (Knopf,  $16.99, 352 pp.). Two sisters’ cross-country trip with their sportscar-driving grandmother Mare alternates with Mare’s engrossing flashbacks to her service in the Women’s Army Corps in World War II. The WWII chapters are so compelling, and Mare’s story is so interesting that the modern interlude feels like an interruption.



Code Talker by Joseph Bruchac cover image from GoodreadsCode Talker: A Novel About the Navajo Marines of World War Two by Joseph Bruchac (Speak, 2005, 240 pages) tells a story not often covered in World War II history books or history classes. During the war, the U.S. government recruited Navajos as radio operators, to encode messages in their native language, which would be incomprehensible to spies. Told from the perspective of Ned Begay, a Navajo teen, it’s a fascinating window into the Navajo experience, as well as a less-well known aspect of World War II.

Books I Haven’t Read Yet that Really Look Good:

Flygirl Cover Image from GoodReadsFlygirl by Sherri L. Smith (reviewed on ReadingRants)

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, (reviewed in the New York Times.)Code Name Verity Image from Goodreads

From the Adult Shelf:

cover image from GoodreadsBilly Boyle: A World War II Mystery
by James R. Benn
Soho Press 2006, 294 pages.

Billy Boyle was just starting his career as a cop in South Boston when World War II broke out. Not wanting to risk his neck on the front lines, he used a family connection to land what he hoped would be a cushy job… But he’s in for a surprise: the branch of his family tree in the US Army turns out to be none other than Dwight D. Eisenhower, who wants Billy to use his police skills and be a private investigator within the army, in this blend of World War II history with solid detective novel. The series continues across six books, with the seventh due out this fall.
Age rating: 15 and up, for wartime violence, murder mystery, and Billy doing some relatively chaste ogling of women, in a stereotype private eye sort of way.

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