Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Her Royal Spyness (book) by Rhys Bowen

It's the 1930s and just about everyone's having money problems, including Lady Victoria Georgiana Charlotte Eugenie (aka Georgie). When she overhears her brother and his wife discussing marrying her off to a cold fish of a man, Georgie decides to take a trip to London (Georgie lives in dreary Scotland). Of course, the family can't afford to send a maid with her, and Georgie can't afford to hire one while in London (her brother cut her allowance off ages ago), so she's left to fend for herself. The Queen asks her to spy on her son and his newest lady friend and hints that Georgie might be sent off to be a lady-in-waiting in the middle of nowhere. Georgie has to do what the Queen has asked and somehow figure out how to earn a living while at the same time avoiding any actions that might get her assigned to a life of boredom in the country.

Georgie tries a job at Harrod's - she doesn't even make it through a day. In the process of learning to take care of her own living quarters (her grandfather, who's a commoner and a former cop, tells her how to light a fireplace, and she figures out how to toast bread and clean things), Georgie has what she thinks is a brilliant idea - become a one-woman cleaning service. She'll change sheets, do a bit of scrubbing and dusting, and try to make sure that no one of her class finds out what she's resorting to for money.

While Georgie tries to figure out how to support herself, she meets a handsome minor royal, an Irishman who's also short on funds. He's interesting, fun, and attractive, but he's not suitable husband material - that doesn't stop Georgie's best friend from encouraging her to have a fling with him and finally cease being a virgin. Unfortunately, Georgie's life isn't just work and a handsome man. Her brother has come to London with bad news: apparently, their father gambled away the family estate, and now the winner has come to collect. When that man turns up dead in the family's London home, Georgie and especially her brother are suspects. Georgie has to figure out who killed him before whoever did it manages to kill her, all while doing some spying for the Queen and cleaning other people's houses.

The cover of this book makes me think "lively and fun" and that's exactly what this book is. I wasn't sure what to think of Georgie, at first - she's well-bred, which often translates to "annoying and stuck-up" in books and movies, and she complains about her circumstances but refuses any of the quickest solutions to her problems. I came to like her pretty quickly, however. Although I never really could understand why becoming a lady-in-waiting was such a bad fate, I enjoyed the ways she tried to solve her own problems. She didn't ask her grandfather to fix everything, especially after she realized that he was probably in more dire monetary straits than she. She lost the job at Harrod's through no real fault of her own, and her decision to become a cleaning lady was fairly logical, if naive (which fits her character, anyway).

Mystery fans should be warned that it takes a while for the mystery (the murdered man) to be introduced - the first part of the book establishes Georgie's character and her predicament and sets the story's fairly light and humorous tone. Once the murder does happen, it becomes extremely easy to forget all the other things Georgie is supposed to be doing - Bowen does try to remind the reader here and there, but in the end Georgie doesn't do much cleaning, and spying for the Queen just sort of swoops in and takes over the whole story.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book and hope to read more of this series. The historical details, humor, and tiny bit of romance were tons of fun, and the book itself was a very quick read (I finished it in a day).

Read-alikes:
  • Thank you, Jeeves (book) by P. G. Wodehouse - Bertie Wooster, a bumbling aristocrat, attempts to solve his personal problems on his own and is eventually forced to turn to his butler, Jeeves, for help. Those who'd like another light-hearted comedy in which the main character always ends up in unfortunate situations might want to try this. In addition, the time period during which this book and the others in the series take place (pre-WWII) is similar to Her Royal Spyness, which may appeal to some readers.
  • To Say Nothing of the Dog (book) by Connie Willis - This hilarious, fast-paced, and strange sci-fi/faux-Victorian novel stars Ned Henry, a time-traveling historian suffering from time lag. In order get him away from Lady Schrapnell, who's running all the historians ragged trying to restore Coventry Cathedral, and give him time to recover, he's sent to Victorian England to take care of a supposedly simple assignment. Unfortunately, he's too time-lagged to understand what he's supposed to do. Those who'd like another historical comedy involving lots of well-bred characters and a bit of mystery might want to try this.
  • Strangled Prose (book) by Joan Hess - Claire Malloy is trying to survive and raise a daughter, despite having no particular skills or abilities. She builds upon and uses her connections to and background in academia by opening a bookstore. In this first book in the series, Claire reluctantly holds a book signing for a friend, romance author Mildred Twiller (pen name, Azalea Twilight). Guests at the event are angry to hear themselves libeled in excerpts from the new book, and Mildred leaves in tears, only to be discovered later, strangled to death. Those who'd like another humorous mystery with a main female character who tries her best to be self-sufficient might want to try this.

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