The Agency by Y.S. Lee
When I found this delightful four-part series, it seemed too good to be true. These novels satisfy any reader’s cravings for mystery, romance, history, and strong and diverse female characters. The series follows Mary Lang, a half-British, half-Chinese young lady living in 1850s London. The novel quickly introduces her history in a couple of chapters; Mary was orphaned at a young age, sentenced as a thief, and saved from death by the headmistresses at Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls. The life of a lower-class mixed-race lady, or of any lower-class woman, for that matter, is by no means sugarcoated. These books turn the romanticized 19th century England on its head, exposing the brutality that many faced. The books are not all dark, however. It is soon revealed that the headmistresses at the academy run a solely female-run detective agency and hire Mary her intelligence, courage, and strength as a fighter. Each book presents Mary with a new and thought-provoking case, even for the readers. What's most satisfying is the series’ interconnected mysteries, sweet romance, and the way Mary’s assignments inevitably bring out parts of her past and identity she has learned to hide.
The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee
This novel is another 19th century story with a rare protagonist in an expanse of predominantly Caucaisan historical fiction novels. Set in Atlanta, Georgia, readers follow Jo Kuan, another spunky and fierce female character, similar to Mary Lang in many ways. Rather than a detective (although there is a mystery for our protagonist to solve, Jo works as a lady’s maid for the daughter of an extremely rich man in Atlanta. However, Jo’s real talent lies in her prolific writing, which she composes at night while living beneath the home of a family who runs a newspaper. Jo overhears their need for an advice columnist and anonymously submits her ingenious, often scandalous, and modern snippets to the paper. The readers of the novel truly understand Jo’s talent because Lee’s actual writing in the novel is equally as laced with stunning metaphors. Many middle grade and young adult books focus on creating a strong plot for their young readers to stay engaged. This novel does not only do that by addressing the complex connection of gender and racial rights during the time, but its complex composition makes you want to turn many of the sentences over in your mind just to admire how eloquently Lee writes.
The Secret Letter by Debbie Rix
What really set this WWII novel apart for me is the beautiful descriptions of the story’s idyllic settings. While most war stories are set in desolate and violent settings, in this story of Magda and Imogen, Rix weaves a tapestry that conjures the verdant German country where Magda’s family owns a farm in Newcastle, England that keeps both girls safe from bombs. The novel seems like an innocent girlhood narration, and I found myself developing a fondness for sweet, little Magda through the detailed descriptions of her simple life. While her chapters were no less entertaining and charming, Imogen, was quite an unlikable character as a child, and so I did not form the same connection with her as I did with Magda. As the war progresses and the girls grow older, the idyllic scenery slowly begins to morph without the reader’s knowing. Magda’s chapters illustrate a fascinating and little-known perspective of living in Germany during Hitler’s reign: From the Nazis forcing its citizens to hang Swastikas on Christmas trees rather than ornaments to Magda’s parents' wariness for her rebellious outlook. I found myself warming up to the now-older Imogen, who was sent to war-stricken London and Paris as part of the Women’s Royal Naval Service, unveiling the significant contributions these women had in the British forces. While both perspectives were equally captivating, the women's stories did not intertwine till the very end, making me wait for when this interaction would occur. I thoroughly enjoyed this unique book, though the not-so-perfect ending immediately doused its charming feel with the harsh reality that very few war stories end happily.
The Things We Cannot Say by Kelly Rimmer
Like The Secret Letter, this WWII novel is told in dual perspectives. However, one of the perspectives is from a mother, Alice, who lives with her son Eddie, who is on the autistic spectrum, in the present day. The addition of Alice to this book creates a unique twist, since few young adult novels feature adult characters. Through Alice, Rimmer addresses many stereotypes that children on the autistic spectrum face. The second perspective is of Alice’s grandmother, Alina Dziak who lives on a small farm in Trzebinia, Poland in the year 1939. Alina is introduced to readers as a sweet, rather spoiled, girl with a simple life. She and Tomasz Slaski, the doctor’s son, have always known they would marry. Just after Tomasz leaves for university in Warsaw, the Nazis invade Poland and Trzebinia, conducting mass murders before annexing the area into Nazi Germany. Life on the farm is hard, but Alina’s family tries to stay as quiet and unobserved as possible. However, something happens that makes their discretion impossible, and Alina’s world is turned upside down over and over again across a very short span of time. The relatively slow pace of the book suddenly shifts to a frantic tone, as identities are swapped and lost, people are killed, and a secret is buried for over 80 years. Back in the present, Alice’s dearly loved grandmother has a stroke, and sets Alice on a path to uncover this secret before it's too late.