Posts Tagged ‘A Spy in the House’

A beautiful reminder

Wednesday, May 13th, 2015

Hello, friends. How was your week? I’ve  been writing, weeding, baking, and judging a teen writing contest, among other things. A few days ago, I received a large parcel from my former literary agency. Most peculiar! Most mysterious!

I opened it and found these, to my great astonishment:

Y S Lee, A Spy in the House (Korean edition)

I’m extremely embarrassed to confess this, but I’d pretty much forgotten about the Korean edition of A Spy in the House, which is published by the delightfully named Tomato House.

Can you make out that gorgeous embossed key motif? The keys seem to dangle from the top of the cover.

Y S Lee, A Spy in the House (Korean ed)

Here’s the spine:

Y S Lee, A Spy in the House (Korean ed)

I can’t read a word of Korean, but I do love poring over the first page:


And I adore these endpapers.


Sometimes, I get a bit too accustomed to being a working writer. My daily life of creativity starts to feel very normal. And then something like this arrives and elbows me sharply beautifully in my over-privileged ribs.

Thank you, readers of the world! I’m so very fortunate to do what I do, and it’s because of you.

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We are still the Victorians

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2015

Hello, friends. Today is Earth Day – a useful time to reflect upon what our environment is like, what might happen to our world in the future, and how things used to be. As you know, I think we’re a lot more like the Victorians than we’d prefer to believe. It’s so comforting to view them as boring, prudish, ignorant dinosaurs. It’s so flattering to congratulate ourselves upon how much we’ve changed and how modern we are. But I’m here, once again, to argue that we are much more like the Victorians than we might think.


I’ve written in the past about the Great Stink of 1858, which I chose as the backdrop for A Spy in the House. It’s satisfyingly revolting to think about it – all that sewage and waste in the Thames! – and I, like most people, am really glad we don’t live that way anymore. But the Great Stink of 1858 was also a major turning point. That summer, the citizens of London learned that they couldn’t expect the river to absorb all their waste and pollution. They were forced to build modern sewers, to reconsider the amount of waste produced by factories and, above all, to change their ways. Sound familiar? As we confront our own ongoing environmental crises – oil spills, climate change, flame retardants in our water and soil – we’d do well to address our problems as directly and effectively as Londoners have done, over the last 150 years. After all there are, once again, fish swimming in the Thames.

It’s also tempting to refer to “the Victorians” as a huge, undifferentiated group. (I do it all the time here on the blog, for the sake of convenience.) But we should remember that there were Victorian environmentalists, as well. They were outnumbered by industralists, of course, much as they are now. Still, here is the future poet A. E. Housman describing a lecture he attended in 1877, as an undergraduate at Oxford. The lecturer was the art critic John Ruskin:

This afternoon Ruskin gave us a great outburst against modern times. He had got a picture of Turner‘s, framed and glassed, representing Leicester and the Abbey in the distance at sunset, over a river. He read the account of Wolsey’s death out of Henry VIII. Then he pointed to the picture as representing Leicester when Turner had drawn it. Then he said, “You, if you like, may go to Leicester to see what it is like now. I never shall. But I can make a pretty good guess.” Then he caught up a paintbrush. “These stepping-stones of course have been done away with, and are replaced by a be-au-tiful iron bridge.” Then he dashed in the iron bridge on the glass of the picture. “The colour of the stream is supplied on one side by the indigo factory.” Forthwith one side of the stream became indigo. “On the other side by the soap factory.” Soap dashed in. “They mix in the middle — like curds,” he said, working them together with a sort of malicious deliberation. “This field, over which you see the sun setting behind the abbey, is not occupied in a proper manner.” Then there went a flame of scarlet across the picture, which developed itself into windows and roofs and red brick, and rushed up into a chimney. “The atmosphere is supplied — thus!” A puff and cloud of smoke all over Turner’s sky: and then the brush thrown down, and Ruskin confronting modern civilisation amidst a tempest of applause, which he always elicits now, as he has this term become immensely popular, his lectures being crowded, whereas of old he used to prophesy to empty benches. (quotation from Norman Page’s A. E. Housman: A Critical Biography, via the Victorian Web)

Despite Housman’s dismissive tone (“a great outburst against modern times”), he does suggest that, in 1877, Ruskin had caught the prevailing mood. The undergraduates “crowding” his highly emotional lectures are not so different from the curious, critical-thinking young people of 2015 wondering what their contribution to the world will be.

And, as this cartoon shows, Victorians got it: London was filthy.

Despite the clean-up of the past 150 years, it still is. Today, if you walk past Coram’s Fields, you can see sheep living in the heart of Bloomsbury and they are, indeed, quite dingy with accumulated soot. As we think about Earth Day and what lies ahead, let’s do so knowing what changes are possible, how much change is yet to come, and how close we are to our Victorian roots.

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What is a novel?

Wednesday, November 20th, 2013

Hello, friends. I recently had a long and utterly engaging conversation with three fellow writers: two of them critically acclaimed poets, all of us writers of novels. We were talking about the act of writing. One of us, who is working on her first novel, said that for her, writing it was like posing the question, “What is a novel?” That is, what are the novelistic conventions I value? Is it true that a novel must feature x? Or that it must not do y? For this friend, the novel she writes will be the answer – or perhaps one set of answers – to that question.

I was completely taken with this philosophical approach to writing because I have gone about things so very differently (thus far). When I sat down to write my first novel, the one thing of which I was certain was how very little I knew about writing a novel. I thought that I wanted a Victorian setting, and that I wanted to write about an outsider: a girl who, in strictly realist terms, would have led a life that was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.* I had my two starting points, and then I panicked. I had no idea how to structure a novel. Fortunately, I am a lifelong devotee of mystery novels, so it felt right to use the genre as a kind of coat-hanger, to give the book a conventional and useful shape. I knew what was expected, and I could tinker with the genre in small but meaningful ways.

That first book became A Spy in the House and its siblings: The Body at the Tower, The Traitor in the Tunnel, and Rivals in the City (which I’m revising right now!). And then, a couple of months ago (before the editorial revisions for Rivals boomeranged back to me), I sat down to write something completely different. Once again I leaned back and craned my neck, trying to picture the shape of this new book. Over the course of four novels I had learned a bit about plot and structure, but little that I found immediately useful.

What I did, instead, was start playing with voice. I was inspired by two things: a person I know fairly well, and a photograph from a book. And quite soon, the voice became two voices, and I began thinking of the new book as a point of departure. I was trying to provoke. I was refuting some of my previous experience of storytelling. Essentially, I was trying to write against.

With these as my two existing models of writing a novel (writing for; writing against), it’s no wonder that I was struck by my friend’s quiet, personal, solitary question: What is a novel? It’s a brave question, and a difficult one. It’s one that doesn’t allow you to lean on tradition for comfort, and which reminds you to stop being such a reactive brat. It’s one that draws your focus, again and again, into the work itself. What is a novel? I won’t know until I’ve written the next book. And I hope I’ll be able to answer that question in very different forms, over the course of my career. What do you think? What is a novel, to you?

To answer the question in a different form: a reader from Toronto, Shann, recently sent me a link to Litograph, which offers a playfully literal definition of a novel: posters, t-shirts, and tote bags printed with the entire text of a classic book. The best ones, in my opinion, aren’t necessarily of my personal favourite books; instead, they’re titles for which the artist really captured the spirit of the book: Anne of Green Gables, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Persuasion, Gulliver’s Travels. Thank you, Shann, for making my holiday shopping that much easier!

*Aside: I read a novel this past summer that offers a fiery but ultimately realist history for a girl like Mary Quinn: Slammerkin, by Emma Donoghue. It’s terrific and vivid and utterly oppressive because you know from the first page that its protagonist, Mary Saunders, cannot possibly have a happy ending.

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A Spy in the House, redesigned!

Wednesday, January 16th, 2013

Hello, friends! I just received an absolutely wonderful surprise in the mail. (If you’re thinking that authors often receive delightful surprises in the mail, you’re right. As if we need another reason to feel privileged…) It was a bulging, oversized sack containing a envelope full of this:

Yes, that image is massive. Can you tell I’m excited? Ideally, I’d like to be able to see it from the moon.

This is the redesigned cover that’s now on the UK and Australian editions of A Spy in the House. The full cover looks like this:

I love everything about this cover: colour, font, background image, the Mary Quinn logo that looks like a cameo, the rubbed and weathered effect around the corners… I have one front and centre in my study and every time I glance at it, I smile.

The old cover, the first UK cover, looked like this:

I still think this is a strong cover. The gloves glow, the fonts are well chosen, and I love the map of London in the background. It’s also a great homage to classic mystery design (think Agatha Christie), which often shows key plot elements in a kind of still-life.

But this one? This one is a stunner. I’m so glad that my UK publisher, Walker Books, redesigned it for this new printing. And I’m ecstatic to know that it’s now out there, in bookstores.

What do you think? Thoughts, impressions, preferences?

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For once in my life, I am part of the zeitgeist

Wednesday, October 17th, 2012

…in a bookish way, of course. As you probably know, Hilary Mantel is now the first woman to win the Booker prize twice. And she’s done it with linked works of historical fiction! If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know how much I adore Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, and you know how thrilled I am.

I’m also excited on a more personal level, because of a small package that arrived in yesterday’s mail, containing this:


This is the German paperback edition of A Spy in the House, which will be published on November 1, 2012. Isn’t it lovely? It’s entirely different from the hardcover:

And I prefer it. It’s clean, dramatic, a bit younger-looking, and it reminds me in the happiest possible way of Stephanie Burgis’s delightful UK covers for her Kat, Incorrigible series. I’m so grateful to my German publisher, DTV, for this exquisite re-imagining! The Agency series is called Mary Quinn, Meisterspionin in German, and DTV have also created a wonderful mini-site,, to go with it!

What do you think? And do you have a favourite cover?


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My brain is tingling

Wednesday, May 16th, 2012

Hello, hello! My friend, Colette Colligan, is a terrifyingly smart person who pops into my life every now and again with something that completely changes my view of the nineteenth century. Those of you who’ve read A Spy in the House will probably remember a scene that pays homage to Colette’s doctoral thesis on Obscenity and Empire (her thesis was later published as The Traffic in Obscenity from Byron to Beardsley).

Her most recent email casually mentioned that there’s a book called The Female Detective. Published in 1864. I know, I know! has come up with nothing, which is both shocking and a fantastic challenge. In the meantime, I’m going to borrow Joseph A. Kestner’s Sherlock’s Sisters: The British Female Detective, 1864-1913 for an overview.

This is the thing with research: it never ends. It’s infuriating and alarming (what did I miss, that I really should have known about?) but also a wonderful and constant reminder of how much there still is to learn. And I adore that.

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I’ll never tire of sewers

Wednesday, May 9th, 2012

Really, what’s not to love? That’s why I recommend this BBC radio program about the desperate state of London’s current sewer system. In the late 1850s (immediately following the action of A Spy in the House), Victorian engineer Joseph Bazalgette designed and built a modern sewage system for the city of London. 150 years later, London has outgrown it, and debate now rages about what to do next.

Every time there’s a heavy rain, the sewers overflow into the river itself. The river’s full of refuse. The fish are dying. All they need now is an unusually hot May, and the Great Stink of 1858 could replay itself.. The program is called Costing the Earth.

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A women’s detective agency? Why?

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2012

Hello, friends! I’m guest-blogging this week at Bites, where Donna asked me why I chose to write about a women’s detective agency in Victorian London. The short answer? I love bright and shiny anachronisms. The longer answer is here.

And did you know that this coming week, May 5 – May 12, is Canadian Children’s Book Week? In celebration of children’s books, my friends at Young Kingston have organized a group signing at Novel Idea Books on Sunday, May 6. I’ll be there from 3 to 4 with the award-winning Ann-Maureen Owens. Hope to see you there!

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We are all Jane Austen

Wednesday, February 15th, 2012

Hello, friends! This week, I saw an interesting conversation develop about Jane Austen, race, and feminism. It started at Reading in Color, when Ari asked, “Is Jane Austen only for white people?” Sayantani at Stories are Good Medicine picked up the conversation and posed the logical follow-up question: “Can feminists dig Darcy?” There were loads of interesting observations in the comments at Reading in Color, and my intention here isn’t to rehearse those dialogues or respond to each one. But I was struck by the questions and want to talk a bit about how they sound to me.

To my ear, at least, each question can be flipped around and made more general:

Should everything I read as a woman of colour include characters of colour?

Should everything I read as a feminist be overtly progressive?

In sum, should we create a world of books that reflects our own world views and positions?

It’s certainly important to see ourselves – our own kind of people, whether we’re talking race or creed – reflected in our literature. It creates a sense of community, assists us in defining ourselves more clearly, helps us to look critically at our own strengths and shortcomings.

But at the same time, what a wilfully small world that would be. Can you imagine how limited our interests, imaginations, interests, and conversations would be, if that were the case? How unable we’d be to imagine another point of view, or follow an argument that didn’t relate directly to our own interests? How would we learn new things? How could we admire – and borrow – streaks of brilliance that we didn’t create?

We must read widely, read deeply, and read well outside our comfort zones if we’re to learn and grow. And if we enjoy what we read – if we absolutely adore what we discover – so much the better.

I’d also argue that when we make assumptions about the homogeneity or reactionary nature of Jane Austen’s (or anyone else’s) world, we’re limiting ourselves as much as we are them. People assume all the time that Victorian London was lily-white, with a clear-cut and never-changing social order. The reality is much more complex, as I try to show in the Agency novels.

Finally, isn’t it interesting that we don’t have to give our beloved Jane Austen a special get-out-of-jail-free card? Think about the lesson at the heart of her most-adapted novel, Pride and Prejudice. It is, at core, a novel about humility: 1) not presuming yourself superior to another group of people (in Darcy’s case, the Bennet family), and 2) being able to retract your hasty judgement of someone based on hearsay (in Elizabeth’s case, Darcy). That’s a fine message for any progressive book to carry – whoever the author.

Are you an Austenite? What have you learned from Jane Austen – or another favourite author?

Other bits from this past week:

On the same day I received my finished copies of Traitor, I heard on Twitter that They Are About – as in, already on sale in some places! One reader in Texas and another in Kentucky have already read the real deal. This is so exciting.

This review from Forever YA is the funniest review I’ve ever read about one of my own books.

And here’s a terrific podcast about the Plimsoll line, which has a small but important role in the plot of A Spy in the House. Thank you, MrsFridayNext, for sharing it with me!

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Meditation in Action

Wednesday, October 26th, 2011

Three-and-a-half years ago (ie, Before Kids), I was a passionate yogi. I practiced regularly, I thought daily about my practice and how it was evolving, and travelling to Mysore, India (birthplace of ashtanga yoga) was one of my dreams. Since then, I can count precisely the number of times I’ve done the full primary series: 0. Sure, I’ve tried to come back to it. Repeatedly. I was even semi-regular, for one joyous little window between pregnancies. But I’ve concluded that having a regular, mindful, dynamic yoga practice is unrealistic for the time being. (Check in with me in a year’s time. If I’m not semi-regular again, please be disappointed in me. I certainly will.)

One thing I loved (still do) about yoga is that it’s a form of meditation in action. These days, however, I get my meditation-in-action in different ways. Cooking is pretty frenzied, with one child “helping” and another yodelling in the background. Ditto baking. But look what landed in our back garden today!

Two cords of seasoned firewood. And it all needs to go into the shed (that blue building on the right). Stacking firewood is only very distantly related to yoga: both require a gentle warm-up and no special clothing (regardless of what lululemon would have you believe). Both leave you feeling sore and smug the next day. And until things calm down around here, I’ll take my meditation in action wherever I can get it.

What’s your form of meditation in action?

P.S. I recently recorded two audio clips for the nice people at Want to hear them? The first is a short reading from A Spy in the House and the second is a silly one about the pronunciation of my name. Hope you enjoy!

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