March 10, 2016
(+++) UNFAMILIAR PLACES
The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency No. 1: The Case of the Missing Moonstone. By Jordan Stratford. Art by Kelly Murphy. Knopf. $16.99.
The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency No. 2: The Case of the Girl in Grey. By Jordan Stratford. Art by Kelly Murphy. Knopf. $16.99.
The Smell of Other People’s Houses. By Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock. Wendy Lamb Books. $17.99.
One thing that well-written books for preteens and teenagers can do is to transport readers to places they have never encountered, including some that never existed. To do this in an intriguing way, with a veneer of plausibility, is one of the challenges of writing alternative-history historical fiction, and it is a challenge to which Jordan Stratford rises, for the most part neatly, with The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency. The two books released so far in this series, the first one rather light and the second darker and more of a Gothic entry, both take off from works by Wilkie Collins: respectively, The Moonstone (generally considered the first detective novel in English, although Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories preceded it by decades) and The Woman in White. Stratford does not use his books to introduce those by Collins, though; he simply lifts elements of Collins’ plots into a wholly invented world in which young girls form a detective agency and go about solving mysteries. The attraction here is that the girls are Ada Byron Lovelace (age 11 in these books) and Mary Godwin Shelley (age 14). Set up to be polar opposites – Ada is a genius with numbers who lacks social skills and in modern times would probably be deemed to be somewhere on the autism spectrum, and Mary is loyal, intuitive and persuasive with people – the girls meet when both have the same tutor (who will turn out to be none other than Percy Bysshe Shelley). It is the girls’ curiosity and love of learning that lead them to become friends; and soon, bored with being expected to do very little with themselves because of the constraints women face in British society in the 19th century, they create their own detective agency and go about seeking clients and solving cases. None of this is the slightest bit believable, but it is all in line with the girl-power approach now undertaken by so many authors seeking to reach young female readers. And Stratford handles it better than many others do, helped by his own careful research and evaluation of real-world history and how to bend it, and by excellent Kelly Murphy illustrations that neatly enliven both books. Readers’ reactions to The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency will depend not so much on the mysteries themselves (they are fairly simple and are solved, or all but solved, fairly early in both books) but on perceptions of the two central characters. Readers who consider Ada charmingly quirky and Mary solid and effective will enjoy both books thoroughly. However, it is equally possible to deem Ada obnoxious and Mary wishy-washy. Besides, the notion of the two girls operating so completely without supervision strains credulity, and when, in the first book, they get into and out of Newgate Prison because Ada does so good a job of bullying a guard, some readers will find that the books require a greater willing suspension of disbelief than they are prepared to provide.
Nevertheless, there is enough science, math and language here to keep readers who do like the girls interested throughout, and there are enough puns and humor, especially in the first book, to make the series fast-paced and attractive. And Stratford does a good job of using big words, then defining them (although older readers may find this stylistic element irritating). The second book gives Ada and Mary two new detective-agency members: their sisters, Allegra and Jane. Ada’s preoccupation with codes is important here, and Mary’s increasingly grown-up ways (she is well aware that she is approaching 16, the age at which she will be expected to find a husband) figure in the plot as well. There are more characters in the second book than the first, and Charles Dickens plays a significant role in it. The periodic introduction of details about life in England in the early 19th century is one of the charms of both books – indeed, readers who do not find such details charming will not care for the books at all. There is a strong “girl power” emphasis throughout, and not just in the central characters – in the second book, for example, the girls’ agency is hired by a brilliant mathematician who is a woman. The constant girls-can-do-anything empowerment of the narrative will likely make the books unappealing to young male readers, who will find no one here with whom to identify. The underlying awkwardness-with-people of Ada and smooth-things-over approach of Mary together provide the dynamic that carries both books forward more effectively than do the rather simple mysteries themselves. And Stratford’s end-of-book notes, explaining who all the characters are and how he modified their timelines to create these stories, are a big plus and, indeed, are more interesting than some elements of the narratives. Unbelievable The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency certainly is, but no more so than many other books for the same age range; and the place to which it takes readers – the London of 200 years ago, or rather a city that never existed but that has many characteristics of that London – is certainly a fascinating one to visit.
Alaska in the 1970s, the setting for Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock’s debut novel, The Smell of Other People’s Houses, certainly was a real place, but it feels as strange in this book as does Stratford’s reimagined London. Actually, the smells of the title are one reason for this: Hitchcock periodically mentions smells in giving descriptions of various places, and the result is that readers get a more-visceral connection with the Alaska of 40-plus years ago than they otherwise would. Aimed at older readers than Stratford’s books (ages 12 and up rather than ages 8-12), and focusing on both male and female protagonists (three girls and one boy), The Smell of Other People’s Houses is a fairly conventional coming-of-age novel that deals with typical downbeat teen concerns – including poverty, abuse and teenage pregnancy – but still produces a positive ending. Not all readers will find that conclusion particularly convincing: here, just as in the less-fraught Stratford books, the determining factor will likely be readers’ feelings about the four central characters, who tell their own stories in alternating chapters. The four are Ruth, who has lived with Gran ever since a family tragedy when Ruth was young, and who has a secret that she will be unable to keep much longer; Dora, who wants to get away from her father and has some unexpected good luck that she does not know how to handle; Alyce, whose parents are divorced and who fishes with her father on his boat while studying dancing during times with her mother, all the while trying to figure out where her own hopes and dreams fit into her circumstances; and Hank, whose father has died and who decides to leave town with his brothers in the hope of finding a better life elsewhere. There is nothing particularly unheard-of about these young people’s problems and worries, and for that matter nothing very unusual about the way they express themselves – their alternating voices, although not quite interchangeable, are also not very different. It is the places where the book’s events occur, more than the people who live through those events, that are special. At not much more than 200 pages, The Smell of Other People’s Houses is a short novel, and it would take a highly skilled writer to make four separate interwoven stories believable and affecting in so few pages. Hitchcock does not manage to do this, although she certainly tries hard. The typecast characters and frequent point-of-view changes make the book less engrossing than it would have been if it were longer – but the issues faced and handled by the protagonists do not really require more pages than Hitchcock uses, even if the eventual wrapup is just too neat for full believability. Ultimately, The Smell of Other People’s Houses is merely one among many feel-good, finding-yourself, following-your-dreams-after-discovering-what-they-are books designed for a teenage audience – a book whose unusual geography sets it apart, but whose all-too-typical characters keep it from really being distinctive.