The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

August 21, 2011

Cari Boatright Rerat, book review: Vivid characters make for compelling teen reads

By Cari Boatright Rerat
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — ‘The Agency: A Spy in the House’     

By Y.S. Lee --Teen fiction

By age 12, Mary Quinn is a convicted criminal. Living as an orphan on the streets of Victorian London has made her criminal behavior necessary for her survival.

When the book opens, Mary is on trial for breaking into someone’s home. She’ found guilty and sentenced to death. Just before her sentence is carried out, Mary is rescued and hidden by a group of women who operate Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls.

Five years after her rescue, Mary learns that the school isn’t just any ordinary school but a cover for the Agency, a network of secret agents who infiltrate the lives of suspected criminals in order to gather enough information to prosecute those criminals. The Agency hires only women and girls because no one expects much from them, and they are able to operate largely unnoticed and underestimated by society.

Mary’s first assignment as an agent is to gather information about Mr. Thorold’s missing cargo ships. She must discover if they are actually missing, if he is using the “missing” ships to smuggle illegal material and how he is able to accomplish all of this.

She is hired into the Thorold home as a companion for the Thorolds’ self-absorbed daughter who is about Mary’s age. Little does Mary know, nothing is what it seems in the Thorold house.

This series opener is a fast, light read full of Victorian intrigue and just enough swoon to keep romantics coming back for more. Mary is a smartly drawn character who is not afraid to speak her mind, especially when it comes to the handsome Mr. James Easton.

The mystery is simple enough, but not so much so that readers will have everything figured out before Mary does. Even if they do, they won’t mind a bit. The character interactions and Mary’s back story will keep readers entertained and eager to read the sequel, “The Body at the Tower.”

‘Plain Kate’    

By Erin Bow -- Teen fiction

Katerina Svetlana, or Plain Kate, is the daughter of a master woodcarver. She has such a gift with wood and knives that some call her “witch-blade,” a dangerous moniker in her superstitious village.

After her father dies, Plain Kate is left with nothing but her carving knife, her cat, Taggle, and the little shop she and her father kept. Sleeping night after night in the bottom drawer of the shop’s cabinet, Plain Kate ekes out an existence carving objarka -- talismans worn by villagers for luck -- and taking whatever handouts the other villagers will give her.

When life gets hard and people start getting sick, the townspeople begin looking for someone to blame. Plain Kate, with her mismatched eyes and incredible carving ability, is a good candidate.

If the villagers turn on her and decide she is in fact a witch, she’ll be burned in the market square.

In order to save her own life, Plain Kate decides to set out with Taggle to join the Roamers, a clan of wanderers who travel among the villages trading goods and performing acrobatics for coins. In order to get the supplies she needs to set out, Plain Kate must make a bargain with a real witch.

Bargains with real witches are hardly ever a good idea.

Plain Kate is a fairy tale full of heartbreak and heroism. It’s the kind of fairy tale you can imagine being told generation after generation. Magic, love, pain and darkness swirl together to paint a lovely story about a girl and her talking cat as they journey to find acceptance in a cruel world.

The characters Bow creates are as vivid and colorful as the setting. Even secondary characters are fleshed out and believable.

The Roamers are an interesting clan full of mysterious societal rules that give the book added flavor and variety.

Readers will love Plain Kate and her resilience, but with his cat ways and wise words, Taggle will capture their hearts. “Plain Kate” is an excellent read for all levels, but expect a few tear-jerking moments.


Cari Boatright Rerat is the teen librarian at Joplin Public Library.