Still Life, Louise Penny

A few weeks ago, I had lunch with a couple of friends from a yoga class I used to have time to take before I had to balance the work from home/mom lifestyle (if you’re  a parent and manage to do this and still go to such classes, bless you – I wish I were that person, but alas, I am not). The three of us are from different generations, and I never get tired of seeing them because as much as I love the company of my peers, it’s a precious gift to have long talks with women who have have experienced so much of the world, such passionate careers, and such diverse relationships. I always leave laughing, buoyed up by their stories and by the long list of book recommendations we’ve shared with each other.

811sqbhadjlFor the past six months, both of them have desperately been trying to get me into the Chief Inspector Gamache series by Penny, and while they’ve been on my list, they’d never quite made it to the top. Unfortunately, a new one had been released just before our last get together, which meant they did a lot of excited whispering back and forth (kindly keeping me from being spoiled, while simultaneously piquing my curiosity to an annoying extent). I finally gave in and ordered the first one for my kindle while waiting for our food to arrive.

I read Still Life while fighting off a few bad nights of insomnia that culminated in a stomach bug, and I can definitively say that Canadian cozy mysteries are the best medicine. Obviously, I’m already deep into the second volume, but I think the most delightful part of the whole experience was the email chain that resulted from telling my friends that I had finally caved.

From K: And they just keep getting better and better! Enjoy! So glad you started them. But don’t be like T and read them out of order. That’s just too upsetting.
From T: Happy you are hooked. Remember it is (still, I believe) a free country – read books in any order you feel like reading them.
Honestly, I was sick as a dog when I read their replies, and I still laughed. In order (like the obsessive compulsive I am) or out, Louise Penny has all three of us completely hooked. Even fighting over them is fun, possibly because it’s been a long time since I’ve gotten to share a great series with people I can also share a meal with, and possibly because a little Canadian escapism is just the ticket for getting through this crazy winter…
Peter was willing the water to boil so he could make tea and then all this would go away. Maybe, said his brain and his upbringing, if you make enough tea and small talk, time reverses and all bad things are undone. But he’d lived too long with Clara to be able to hide in denial. Jane was dead. Killed. And he needed to comfort Clara and somehow make it all right. And he didn’t know how. Rummaging through the cupboard like a wartime surgeon frantically searching for the right bandage, Peter swept aside Yogi Tea and Harmony Herbal Blend, though he hesitated for a second over chamomile. But no. Stay focused, he admonished himself. He knew it was there, that opiate of the Anglos. And his hand clutched the box just as the kettle whistled. Violent death demanded Earl Grey. (pg 46)

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d: A Flavia de Luce novel, Alan Bradley

It’s rare to read a series – even a beloved one – and have the eighth book be one’s favorite. I find that if I’m reading a series with three to seven books, it’s typically the third or fourth that I like best; however, any author writing in the same world for much longer than that starts to blur the details.

51ldoulkawlThis isn’t to say I don’t love a long series. I do. They may be my favorite type of books because I get to come back again and again to beloved characters. I wouldn’t trade a good series for anything, and yet I accept that they get fuzzy. The individual volumes are usually less important to me than the overarching storylines, and I’m often so excited for a new book that I devour it in hours or days and then despair that it will be years until the next one appears.

This has certainly been true for some of the Flavia de Luce novels. I remember several of the earliest ones quite clearly, and then it gets vague, and then the seventh book takes our young sleuth from England to Canada (which helps tremendously in separating its storyline from others), and then this newest volume, which I expected to relish and then lump in with the others, stood out above the rest.

When I was young, I read all the Nancy Drew novels our library had, and I remember enjoying them, although even then, I found the repetition of certain facts about Nancy to be a tiresome waste of pages. Nevertheless, there was a shortage of books about girls solving crimes, and I read anything on the subject I could find. Oh, to have had Flavia to read back then. If anything, she’s more like Harriet the Spy then Nancy Drew, although she has the composure of a woman much older than twelve.

She’s not well liked, and she’s constantly getting into trouble for nosing in where she doesn’t belong. Her family life is awful, and she relies on her keen intelligence to find a place for herself in a bitterly cold and lonely world. Unraveling murders is cathartic for Flavia. She is a scientist with a burning desire to break down the facts to their logical conclusion, and after reading eight books and one short story, I haven’t tired of watching her do it.

My heart breaks for her though. She is funny and bright and although she doesn’t admit it even to herself, she obviously hopes that the people she admires will see her for who she truly is if she continues her work. For all of her bravery and keen observations though, she is only twelve – eleven when she solved her first murder –  those years pre-puberty are lonely under the best of circumstances, and hers are not the best.

In this book especially, I couldn’t help but see the neglect, the coping mechanisms she’s had to forge and rely on increasingly throughout the series. Flavia at her core is absolute steel, and it’s both fascinating and heartbreaking to watch the naivete get stripped away as she is forced to grow up. One might think witnessing the carnage of multiple murders would be the most disturbing thing for a child’s psyche, but for this girl, the science behind death is the carrot to a life that is otherwise all stick.

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust, Alan Bradley

My brother and I don’t, in general, have overlapping taste in novels. He’s five years older, and until the last year or so, I could only name a handful of books we’ve read as adults that have overlapped. By chance though, we share a common love for Flavia de Luce – that brilliant, morbid eleven year old Brit who solves suspicious deaths with her extensive knowledge of chemistry – and it was through him that I was tipped off about a new title being released. This particular novel, in which Flavia has been shipped off to a Canadian boarding school, ended up being a particularly timely read for me given that last week my own child started in part-time care. It’s his first time away from me for any lengthy period, and although the distance between us is three miles and not the three thousand that Flavia experiences, it tugged on my heart to read about this tough girl’s homesickness.

51byag2zqwl-_sy344_bo1204203200_In previous volumes, Flavia is shown with hardly a weakness (beyond the impetuousness of youth and a propensity to get into trouble, which unsurprisingly accompanies a healthy curiosity for things that shouldn’t concern her). In this book though, she seems much more vulnerable, much more the child she is, wishing often to be home and surrounded by familiar faces, even the sisters she claims to hate. Occasionally, when a writer plucks his protagonist out of her environs and drops her into a new place, such emotions are touched upon briefly but never revisited. Bradley, however, allows the reader to stew, coming back to Flavia’s struggle to adjust again and again.

I found myself getting distracted considering the differences between parent and child. Children, even brilliant ones like Flavia, are at the whim of parents and guardians. They are left in the dark for a variety of reasons and have to cope constantly. It’s terrifically difficult to be a kid for that very reason – the rug may be pulled out at any time, and it’s necessary to adjust. Even as an adult, before I became a parent, I associated very strongly with the many injustices of childhood that stem from ignorance (forced or otherwise).

It wasn’t until I had to care for my own son that I realized how painful it could be to make decisions for another person. I know he benefits greatly from spending twenty hours a week with a wonderful caregiver and other children, but I also know that at ten months, he may wonder at times where I am and feel abandoned because cognitively he hasn’t grasped all the necessary factors that have led to him being there and not here.

I also know that while it’s important for me to work, it’s painful to be separated from my child. I sometimes cry when I get to the car knowing that this small step back, this first taste of his independence is one of many I’ll take if I’m lucky. And it’s tough. As hard as it is to be a child, it’s equally difficult to be the parent and arbiter. Bradley’s perspective on Flavia’s situation reminded me of that. It made me wonder why her father made the choices he did, what information he had that she didn’t that would lead him to send his youngest across a vast ocean. And as I read about her struggle to hold it together in a strange new land, I wondered how many times a day his heart broke thinking of her there.

Even the last few minutes alone had been shocking. I had broken at least three of the Ten Commandments— the “Thou shalt nots” of British girlhood: I had cried, I had allowed alcohol to pass my lips, and I had fainted.

I examined my blurry image in the hanging glass. The face that stared dimly— but defiantly— back at me was a hodgepodge of de Luce: a grab bag of Father’s features, Aunt Felicity’s, Feely’s, Daffy’s— but above all, Harriet’s. In the harsh glare of the flickering overhead lightbulb, it reminded me— but only for a moment— of one of those topsy-turvy paintings by Picasso we had cocked our heads at in the Tate Gallery: all pale skin and a kaleidoscope mug. The recollection of it made me grin, and the moment passed.

I thought of the faded, flyblown wartime posters that still hung in Miss Cool’s confectionery in the high street of Bishop’s Lacey: “Get a Grip,” “Chin Up,” and “Best Foot Forward.”

I took a deep breath, squared my shoulders, and gave myself a smart regulation salute in the mirror.

How proud Father would be of me at this moment, I thought. “Soldier on, Flavia,” I told myself in his absence. “Soldier on, de Luce, F. S.” (p 82-83)


Greenglass House, Kate Milford

Is there anything better than a warm vacation in the dark of winter? Yes – a warm vacation in the dark of winter with a really excellent book (obviously.) But don’t worry, I’m not going to brag about taking a holiday. Even when I know I have one coming, or just got back, I loathe reading about someone else’s trip while I’m forced to convince myself to venture out into the rain or snow. I think it’s human nature – no matter how kind a person may be – to loathe the good fortune of others when it comes to time off. Or maybe it’s just that I’m a particularly awful person, but now that I’m home, I plan to comfort myself with the knowledge that none of us really want to hear about (or, God forbid, see pictures) of someone else’s week away. I will spare you that, and instead focus on the kind of pleasure we can all enjoy – the sweet satisfaction that comes from reading a fantastic book.

I bought Greenglass House on a whim as a Christmas gift for my mother. It was advertised on Amazon (undoubtedly because I have a book buying problem, and that site knows exactly how weak I am), and after reading the first few pages, I was hooked and ordered it immediately. When I got to my parents’ house in December and unwrapped it, I was delighted by the beautiful cover and the feel of the particular paper used. I’m not a publishing expert, but there’s something about the paper stock in hardcover middle grade novels that immediately brings me a deep sense of joy. It was physically painful to have to wrap it up again and give it away on Christmas morning, regardless of the fact that my parents long ago taught me that the gifts I loved dearly were the ones most worth giving away.

Thankfully, my mother is the best sort of person to give books to because she immediately senses the giver’s reluctance and offers to share it back again (after she’s read it, of course – she’s not a saint). She sent it back to me a week before my vacation, promising me that I would love it, and of course, she was right.

There was something about this book that I found…magical. Every time I picked it up, I was swept back into the very sweetest parts of my childhood – those hours spent buried in books, as well as those lost in exploration of the ramshackle thirteen room parsonage we lived in for many years. Milton managed to perfectly capture that thrill of discovery, the wonder of childhood that transforms the ordinary into the exceptional. As I was reading, I ached to go back in time, to climb into deep, dirty closets and find, not a project to organize, but the key to another world.

When I was young, of course, there were plenty of days when I was bored, anxious to grow up and go off on real adventures, and fortunately, as an adult, I’ve tried not to let that younger self down. What I didn’t understand then though, was what those grown up adventures would cost me. Riding on the coattails of joy at discovering new places, there came an understanding of reality that forced shut some of the doors of my imagination forever. Milton’s novel pried open some of those doors again, if only an inch, to remind me of the great and glittering adventures that still exist at home when I bother to look with fresh eyes.


For more about Kate Milton, head over here.

Too Many Crooks Spoil the Broth, Tamar Myers

While I was visiting my family earlier this month, my mother and I sat down to talk through some of our notes about the mystery we’re starting to write. One of the biggest challenges we’re facing is creating a world for our characters that’s richly developed without being cliché, as well as filled with a fleshed-out supporting cast with the potential for romance, friendship, petty grudges, and of course, murder. It’s not that we have a shortage of ideas – not at all. The problem is that we’ve both read so many cozy mystery novels over the (ahem) decades, we’re afraid of covering over-farmed territory.

In general, when I look at an author’s bio after reading a book or series with a well-drawn community, it turns out that person lives (or lived) in a place very similar to the one in their story. This makes perfect sense. I’m always more comfortable writing about someplace I’ve spent a lot of time, and the details ring truer when you aren’t fabricating them, or trying to write them based on satellite views from Google Maps. (Not that I’m disparaging that method – I’ve done it many times myself – but isn’t it tougher to write when there’s constant breaks for research? It is for me.)

The challenge for us, as a writing team, is that I feel that the town where both of us lived for many years is a less interesting location than some of the places we’ve lived separately. Unfortunately, if we want to write about one of those cities instead, one or the other of us will be at a huge disadvantage. It’s a conundrum. It’s proving to be a roadblock for other elements of the story, which is of course also frustrating.

I suspect that’s why I found the setting for Crooks to be so delightful. It takes place in a bed and breakfast in an Amish and Mennonite community in Pennsylvania, and by choosing such a location, Myers has given herself the perfect constraints to work within. Hernia is a small community, and an old one, so families and neighbors are deeply intertwined (for better or worse). It’s also a town where religion and culture are braided together, and both have to come up against the modern world on a daily basis, in no small part due to the fact that protagonist Magdalena Yoder invites that world into her home in order to make a living.

When I went to Myers’ website, I was fascinated to see that she also has a series that takes place in the Congo. I’m sure this is possible primarily because she spent her first sixteen years living there, and I have to admit to being jealous of such an incredible (albeit dangerous) experience. Could I write a book about the Congo? Sure, I suppose so. Maybe with about twenty books open at a time (not to mention an infinite number of tabs on my computer!), years of detailed research, and maybe a trip to see it for myself, I could consider an attempt. But even then, it wouldn’t come close to the perspective of a person who has lived there for many years and taken that cultural experience into her soul.

The reason I’m so obsessed with this part of my own novel is that I believe setting and community are what set this particular genre apart from other mysteries. Sure, plot is important. Dramatic tension is necessary. Unexpected twists and a healthy sense of humor (especially about murder and incompetent police work) are appreciated. At the end of the day though, fans of the cozy mystery come for the people, and for a seat at the table in a well-drawn world.


For more about Tamar Myers, go here.

Murder is Binding, Lorna Barrett

I have been on a mystery binge the last few weeks. It’s part of my transition into summer reading. I’m all about paperbacks I can take to the beach or lake; they can get sandy and wet without doing much real damage, and they can be left on a towel without fear of someone stealing them (the kindle is great for many things, but it doesn’t enjoy the elements or prove to be quite as discouraging to thieves).

Also, after months of keeping up the same work routine, these months of summer, while not necessarily vacation, provide an illusion of change. The days are longer. The drinks and barbecues and camp outs with friends are more plentiful, and in general, there’s a relaxing of the spirit. My reading habits tend to follow with a certain pleasant softening. I gravitate toward reading material that engages a playfulness rather than  studious or reflective part of my brain.

As a bonus, because I’m working on my own mystery novel, technically, I can call books like this research. Stretching it? Yes. A little. Maybe. But I don’t care. A good mystery is a gift, and I refuse to turn my nose up at the chance to read one. Barrett’s novel is even set near the town in New Hampshire where I grew up, so reading it felt like taking a mini-holiday back to the east coast (complete with a little family drama!). I was a little disappointed that the “binding” in question referred to book bindings and not quilting, but once I got over that, I was tickled by the idea of a town that tries to reestablish its downtrodden economy by inviting niche book shops to take over. I would happily live in such a town, and I suspect I am not alone.

Honestly, the premise alone was captivating to me. I loved imagining such a place – bookstores as far as the eye could see, and for every proclivity! Barrett even included a layer of realistic tension between the shop owners and the townies. Having lived for so many years in a small town kept alive by tourism dollars, I’m familiar with its double-edged sword. It can be difficult to live someplace constantly overrun with enthusiastic strangers. They walk too slowly, they seem to speak decibels louder than necessary, and they grab all the parking…but they’re also necessary. And sometimes even adorable in that exuberant, remember what it feels like to be on a holiday sort of way.

Barrett manages to capture that dichotomy here while exploring the position of an outsider like her protagonist, Tricia. Even after months of living in this town, she’s still very much on the fringes, yet when her sister comes to visit, she manages to insinuate herself with the locals in no time. It’s this push and pull at the heart of the book that drew me in, the reminder of what it felt like to live for eight years in a town where I never quite fell into step with the community, blended with the sort of dark mystery that exists in the secret heart of every town.


For more about Lorna Barrett, go here.

Midnight Crossroad, Charlaine Harris

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you already know about my love of all things Harris. I’ve read every series she’s written as fast as she could write them, and when each of them ended, I experienced the kind of sadness unique to multi-book story arcs. (There’s a different sadness that comes with reading a great standalone book, or a trilogy – it’s not a question of greater or lesser – it’s just different.)

Since I was a child, I’ve been drawn to books with seemingly unending adventures though (Nancy Drew, The Boxcar Children, even back to the Berenstain Bears). Something inside of me felt this overwhelming joy at the idea of sinking down into a book with characters I knew and loved well. A friend once said it was just like me to extend my introversion to having a hard time meeting new fictional characters, and I think she was right. When it comes to novels especially, I am most drawn to both characters and authors I already know and love. That being so, this past May was a banner month. I got the latest book in the Dresden Files and the first book in a new series by Harris.

Now, first books are obviously not as exciting as sequels, at least for me (I suspect Harris was ready to start writing new characters with thirteen Sookie Stackhouse novels under her belt), but the transition was eased by the inclusion of a minor character from her Shakespeare series. I have to admit, when I realized who he was (some time before the connection was explicitly made), I mentally made the switch from “well, I suppose I can learn to love this new series” to “ooh continuity is the best – more please!”

I think what had also made me hesitate before that point was that Harris has decided to write at least this first book from the point of view of multiple characters. While that’s not uncommon, it is a different approach than she’s used in the past, and one of the biggest downsides of it is that it takes a lot longer to get to know those characters and establish trust in them as narrators. Having just finished writing a book where we had ten different characters telling the story, I have been on the receiving end of plenty of opinions about the technique, and it’s clear that I’m not the only person who has mixed feelings about it. I still remember when I started reading George RR Martin’s books over a decade ago; it took me three tries to get into A Game of Thrones because there were just so many people clamoring to be heard, and I still haven’t gotten around to reading A Dance of Dragons because I’m bitter about how he split the characters up in the fourth and fifth books. (Yes, I do realize it’s ridiculous to hold a grudge when the fifth book has been out for about three years, but I had roughly six years between those two books to really work myself into a snit, and I suspect it will take about that long before I’ve completely let it go. And no, before you ask, I don’t watch the show – his story was devastating enough the first time. No need to relive that pain in high def.)

I like to make one of the characters in any given book the friend I rely on, and it’s much easier to do that in books with only one narrator. The person I love best isn’t always in that primary role, but I know there will be a certain consistency in my interpretation of the characters when I’m not bouncing from one head into another. I don’t know that it bothers me all that much for an author to use multiple povs in most books, but it threw me for a loop this time because I wasn’t expecting it. I had to adjust to Harris’ new style in addition to setting, story, and characters, and I’m not too proud to admit it helped to have one familiar face in the crowd. That being said, I love that she went quite dark at the end of this first volume, and I’m glad as an author she’s generally consistent about getting a book out every year so I have something to look forward to next spring.


For more about Charlaine Harris, head over here.

The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line, Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham

Am I really writing a post about the mystery novel Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas recently penned about the characters in one of my all-time favorite shows? Why, yes. Yes I am. It’s basically legitimized fanfic, and I happily shelled out 6.99 for my chance to spend a few more hours in Neptune, post-movie madness a month ago. Maybe I should be embarrassed about this. Some people have certainly told me I should be, but what’s the point? Why should I fight my love of all things Veronica Mars? Why should I pretend I don’t like fanfic when sometimes it’s the absolute best thing ever? I still remember the reams of paper my best friend and her sister used to print out fic written about Ghostbusters. That was back before the internet was a thing, at least for me; I honestly had no idea where they were getting these stories, and I didn’t care. All I knew was that for the low, low price of nothing, we could stay up late reading new adventures with our favorite characters.

Today, of course, the world of fanfic is a bigger deal. The internet has made it possible for anyone with an idea to not only pen as many stories as they want about characters and worlds created by others, but to share them easily with an ever-expanding audience. I happen to think that’s wonderful. I know many people – even some of my favorite authors – look down on fic, or call it unoriginal and derivative, but I see it as an opportunity for people who might never have written a word to share in a feeling of creation.

Writing a story is empowering. When I finish a book, when I’ve pulled it all together and had that internal click that tells me I’m done, it’s the best feeling in the world. I’ve gotten it writing original characters, other people’s characters, essays, dramas, poetry (you name it, I’ve probably given it a shot), and each time is special. I would never want to rob another person of that feeling. I would never want to tell another person that what they write or read is bad, or wrong, or shameful, even though it’s not always easy to own up to what I like best. I’m sure my perspective has been at least in part shaped by the fact that of my three closest friends, one reads mainly fanfic, one, the biographies of politicians and humanitarians, and one, romance novels; my father likes history best and my mother, genre novels and children’s books.

I grew up surrounded by people who said yes to reading in any and every format. There were no restrictions about what I could or couldn’t read, no talk about what was “appropriate” reading material. All around me were true book lovers, people who understood that what made a book “good” was the reader’s pleasure in the experience. So when I tell you that The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line was good, I mean it was a joy to steal minutes out of my day to read it. I fell back into a world I’ve loved since the very first episode of the show aired (I still vividly remember being terrified and intrigued by one of the flashbacks on that show that night). Back then, my friend and I had a standing date to watch it; conveniently, it came on right after Gilmore Girls, so we would pour ourselves bowls of Cocoa Puffs for dinner (I know I’m old because that sounds like an awful supper to me now, but at the time, it was perfection) and settle in for two glorious hours.

Of course, it’s important to recognize that Rob Thomas isn’t exactly borrowing these characters. He made them, and brought them to life, and was instrumental in bringing them back to fans years after cancellation, but he didn’t do it alone. The characters have been shaped by the actors and by the history of the show (undoubtedly built by a team of talented writers). He has been a guiding force in that world though, and his love for both the people he’s worked with and the characters he helped to create is always evident. He also has a gift for creating compelling mysteries, a skill I’m studying closely as I work on my own project. I genuinely have no idea how his characters read to someone unfamiliar with the series, but for fans – new or old – to Neptune, this book is a giant hug from him to you.

A Skeleton in the Family, Leigh Perry

When my mother was visiting a few weeks ago, she brought a novel she’d picked up at Boskone, a cozy mystery that was perfect for reading under the nap blanket she had made me last Christmas. (Yes, I have a nap blanket. What can I say? I appreciates naps and all things nap-adjacent.) It’s been grey almost every day for far too long now without the rain we really need, and while I love wet weather, I’m much less fond of the general air of gloominess that has settled over us here.

The perfect remedy for such weather, and for the air of melancholy that descends on our entire household after too many days without sunshine, is a book like Perry’s. It’s sweet, funny, and has a hint of the supernatural without going all sparkly vampire on me. Not that I mind vampires, sparkly or otherwise; I’m in favor of all manner of monster being converted into friend, ally, and when appropriate, love interest. (Of course, in this case, her “monster” is a skeleton, and I was the one falling in love with him.) Perry’s book, in fact, hit a couple of sweet spots for me, including a protagonist who’s a single mother with a realistic(ally good) relationship with her adolescent daughter, several relationships between said protagonist and men that weren’t romantic, a quirky friendship between a woman and her supernaturally reanimated skeleton buddy, and a sisterly dynamic that was both tense and loving  (in other words, completely believable).

After I finished the book, I was thinking about all of these characters, and about how hopeful I was that Perry would write another book about them, and I realized the reason I’m drawn to series’ like The Dresden Files or Sookie Stackhouse is my obsession with lovable characters. Even in my own writing, I’m never nearly as interested in the plot as I am the motivation behind a character’s actions, or the connections people build when put under pressure. That isn’t to say a well thought-out plot is a waste – not at all – but it’s less important to me than the people who are driving the story.

When it comes down to it, I will always come back to an author who writes characters who have been altered by the Velveteen Rabbit affect – the people on the page who have been lugged around and played with until they spring up, animated by the love of those who have created them. Those are characters I can engage with, who I can think about long after I’ve put a book away on the shelf. As a reader, it’s important to me to find stories that are motivated by the people in them rather than books that could almost be myth – an important story, but with any number of people substituted in on a whim with the same results.

This isn’t true for everyone, and I’m glad of that. I would hate to walk into a library and know that every single book on the shelf was exactly what I think I want. It wouldn’t allow for any growth as a critical reader or as a person. It’s wonderful to find a great read totally outside of what I already love, of course, but there will also always be a place in my heart for novels that fit into my heart from the first few pages. Those are the books that get me through long winters, and sleepless nights, and sunny afternoons by the shore. Authors like Perry will always be the ones I search for on a whim in little bookstores because I know I’ll find comfort in their stories and friends in the characters they write. They will be good company no matter the season, and that is not a gift to be taken lightly.

For more about Leigh Perry, head over here.

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, Alan Bradley

When I was visiting my family in January, I gave my brother (as a belated Christmas gift) a kindle loaded up with books from my Amazon library. After flipping through the titles, he noticed that I had the Flavia DeLuce series, and he got excited because the newest one was due to be released the following Tuesday. He asked if I thought I would buy it, and I told him not to fear – it was pre-ordered and would be waiting for him come 12:01am. What I was thinking then though, and what I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since is that I can never remember, in all my life, reading the same book as my brother.

I’m sure there has been overlap that I’m not aware of. If I looked back through books we both had to read in school for instance, or considered books our parents purchased which we pulled off the shelves for our own enjoyment, I’m sure there would be a few. Also, I could count the books we read aloud as a family at dinner, but I don’t because that was an entirely unique experience (not “unique” as in no one else has ever done it, but rather, a unique opportunity  for our parents to share books mainly of their choosing with us).

The thing is, I can’t recall a single instance of us discussing a book that we both read, loved, and were a little giddy over. It just hasn’t happened before, which is a little weird considering how much we both like to read. The thing is, this was an awesome discovery. I loved how his face lit up when he realized he could read the rest of the series, and for me, it felt like Christmas morning to be able to talk to him about the books without having to explain the premise or justify exactly why they were fantastic.

It was a little surreal, actually, and the end result was that I really savored this latest installment. I wanted to prolong that feeling of kinship, and in doing so, I was drawn into the struggle, in this book especially, between Flavia and her sisters. The tension, the pull between them, and the love that exists just beneath a troubled surface becomes increasingly more central to the Flavia’s story.

Bradley has managed a remarkable feat. He has transitioned his series from a couple of excellent one-off murder mysteries into an even more compelling long game. He’s set it up for a change of scene perfectly in the upcoming book without wasting this gem of a novel meant to bridge Flavia’s youthful adventures and her increasingly high stakes education abroad. And he’s managed to do so while writing books that two people with almost zero literary overlap both love. Now that I think about, I suspect witchcraft might be involved…

“What are we going to do, Dogger?”

It seemed a reasonable question. After all he had been through, surely Dogger knew something of hopeless situations.

“We shall wait upon tomorrow,” he said.

“But— what if tomorrow is worse than today?”

“Then we shall wait upon the day after tomorrow.”

“And so forth?” I asked.

“And so forth,” Dogger said.

It was comforting to have an answer, even one I didn’t understand. (loc 3515)

For more about Alan Bradley, head here.

Silent Echo, JR Rain

For me, the new year almost always comes in with a whimper and not a bang. Over the years, I’ve had frostbitten feet, legendary colds, emergency room visits, friendships fall apart, and of course, the requisite hangovers from nights (and years) I just needed to forget. The holidays that weren’t terrible have mostly been dull, with the exception of a few years, like this one, that were simple – board games, good people, and more food than we could possibly eat. I cherish a New Year’s Eve that allows for quiet conversations and reflection about the past year, and on Tuesday night, I got both. It capped off a remarkably good holiday season, and after taking time to think about the last 365 days, what was probably one of my best years ever.

Judging from the posts and articles I’ve seen across the web in the last week, I feel like I’m sort of on my own in thinking that 2013 was a year for the record books. Aside from the friends I have who are perpetually thankful for their health and families (don’t we all know and love people who are just so earnestly delighted by the world that even a terrible year has a silver lining for them?), I’ve seen a lot of “thank goodness for a fresh start” messages. While I’m grateful that a year that began with a nasty case of the flu and the passing of my grandmother has resolved itself so wonderfully, I just want to say, to those of you desperately looking ahead, I feel you – I’ve been there, and I know exactly how needed January can be some years. I very much hope that, regardless of what 2013 has held, this next year will have exceptional highs for each of us.

One of the most amazing things about reading is that sometimes it’s possible to find just the right book at just the right time totally by chance. Silent Echo was a free novel I picked in November as an Amazon Prime kindle member (excellent perk, by the way). I’d never heard of the author, and all I had to go on was a blurb by the editor. It turned out to be a fabulous book to end my year on.

Rain’s protagonist, Jimmy, is a private eye living on borrowed time. He’s dying from an incurable AIDs-related cancer and has given up working until he’s approached by a high school friend with a case. It turns out to be one he can’t refuse, tied as it is to the unsolved murder of his younger brother. This case catapults Jimmy out of his near-death ennui into an incredible journey that’s part thriller and part examination of the bittersweet relationships that evolve at the end of life. Jimmy is in no way a faultless narrator, but Rain weaves a compelling story right from the start, and by Christmas Eve when I finished the book, I was weeping satisfied tears.

Silent Echo takes its genre to a better place. This murder mystery gave me pause during a season of reflection. Jimmy’s physical struggles and psychological scars made me appreciate the pleasures I often take for granted. Look how I can get off the bed and walk! I can use the bathroom without help, and when I want to see a friend, I don’t have to wonder if they’ll shy away from my touch. I can chew and go to the beach and drive my car. I can do a thousand things every day, and while they seem like nothing to me – washing my hair, buying a cup of coffee, having a conversation – they are, in fact, precious.

I don’t think I can be reminded of that too much, especially during this dark winter month when I need to regroup for the year ahead. I doubt I could appreciate more a novel that manages to tell a great story and nudge me to take stock at the same time.

New year. New chapter. Time to take advantage of what we can do – or at the very least, read a great book.


For more about JR Rain, head over here.

I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, Alan Bradley

Although I had planned to spare you all another Flavia deLuce novel review, I felt moved to write about this one (the fourth in the series) not because I liked it better than the others, but because it uses an interesting device and I wanted to talk about it. This is Bradley’s Christmas book, and he chooses to bring a huge number of characters (a film crew and half the town) to the deLuce family home (a dilapidated country estate called Buckshaw) and then traps them there with a massive snowstorm that knocks out phone lines and makes roads and even footpaths impassable. Murder, of course, ensues, and the whole story is played out, not just on the property, but within the manor itself.

I don’t think this idea appeals to me strictly because I was sick for over a week and “trapped” in my own small home, although I certainly could empathize with the frustration of these people after having been together for a few days. No, I actually have a very bad novel I wrote in 2010 that is proof that this particular device has been on my mind much longer than this ridiculous cold has been sitting in my chest. I have tried to salvage that novel many a time, and whenever I pull it out to see what I can make of it, I discover that writing a compelling story where the characters are limited to one small space is incredibly difficult. The tiniest action affects every person – even a slight alteration in mood is enough to throw a wrench in the best laid plans. I imagine anyone who has undertaken a days or weeks-long car trip can attest to this. There is just something inherently stressful about shoving people into a small space; it’s ridiculous to assume they will behave as they always do under those circumstances.

When I was reading I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, I kept being reminded of the movie “Clue.” It was a film I both loved and hated as a child because even though it was a comedy, it did an excellent job creating dramatic tension. What made that story ultimately more successful than this book, for me, was that it limited the cast of characters. There were enough suspects to keep the audience guessing, and to create a number of meaningful interactions between different parties, but not so many that it felt like a block party. Bradley’s mistake was in introducing too many people into what should have been a tightly constrained scenario, even though the reader and Flavia, as our eyes and ears on the ground, as it were, know that Bradley isn’t one for sacrificing his villagers. We may not like all of them, but the chance of one of them committing a brutal murder is low…which is great, if you happen to live in Bishop’s Lacey and want some reassurance that you won’t be killed by the minister’s wife or the pot-boy at the pub. It’s slightly less great if you’re assembling a group of suspects and want to build tension to its breaking point.

Having so many extra characters hanging around dilutes that essential uneasiness Bradley manages after the murders in his earlier novels. The story itself is still charming, but the element of suspense gets lost with all those completely non-shifty people wandering around. I found that disappointing because this setting was so different from the earlier books; normally, Flavia spends as little time as possible at home. Her energy, completely believable in a ten-year old detective, takes her all over the countryside on her bicycle, and Bradley has proven again and again that he’s capable of making even a bus stop seem creepy when the girl is on her own. On her adventures, it’s easy to forget that she’s a child, right up until the moment when she’s put into a position where a small girl’s physical strength is a massive disadvantage. It’s that balance of Flavia’s ultra-capability with the more realistic consequences of investigating gory crimes that makes these books so enjoyable. Once she is surrounded (practically smothered by) sensible adults, the fun of it sort of fades.

It’s really a trap of the location. While it seems like a brilliant, spooky plan to confine sixty (plus) people to one place, really, he would have done better to cut the number to about twelve. Of course, that doesn’t make sense with the story as it stands, but it would have done a world of good for this particular device. I would actually read a second attempt by Bradley if he took this idea and tweaked it – I like his style and core characters that much – and I’m curious to know if anyone has a suggestion for a particularly successful book in this “genre.” There are certainly novels like The Maze Runner or Lord of the Flies that do a lot with a slightly larger but still contained setting, but what I really want is a book where square footage is at a premium. Feel free to leave any suggestions in the comments.


For more about Alan Bradley, go here.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, Alan Bradley

What intrigued me more than anything was finding out the way in which everything, all of creation—all of it!—was held together by invisible chemical bonds, and I found a strange, inexplicable comfort in knowing that somewhere, even though we couldn’t see it in our own world, there was real stability.

I didn’t make the obvious connection at first, between the book and the abandoned laboratory I had discovered as a child. But when I did, my life came to life—if that makes any sense. Here in Uncle Tar’s lab, row on row, were the chemistry books he had so lovingly assembled, and I soon discovered that with a little effort most of them were not too far beyond my understanding.

Simple experiments came next, and I tried to remember to follow instructions to the letter. Not to say that there weren’t a few stinks and explosions, but the less said about those the better.

As time went on, my notebooks grew fatter. My work was becoming ever more sophisticated as the mysteries of Organic Chemistry revealed themselves to me, and I rejoiced in my newfound knowledge of what could be extracted so easily from nature. My particular passion was poison. (p 4)

This book is about a ten-year old girl in 1950 who uncovers a murder and goes about solving it using, primarily, her extensive skills in chemistry. Are there other novels written about great detectives? Obviously. About women? Sure. And scientists? Indubitably. But how often does one run across a protagonist who is all of these things at once? Rarely.

Matilda comes to mind, although she’s a very young genius (and not specifically a scientist)  and one of the characteristics I particularly like about Flavia de Luce is that she’s not. She’s inquisitive, of course, and fannishly dedicated to her field of study, but she isn’t so different from her peers in other respects. She fights terribly with her two old sisters. She goes off exploring on her bicycle for hours at a time. She hates the food she’s made to eat. All very normal, relatable quirks. She does have a way of unsettling adults with her precocious interest in the murder that has occurred (unlike Nancy Drew, who somehow managed to solve murders and be considered absolutely darling at the same time), but I know plenty of unsettling (and precocious) children.

I actually found myself fantasizing about a book where she and Christopher Boone meet – difficult to picture since both of them prefer their own company to socializing – but delightful none the less. It then occurred to me that I’ve manage to read three (ostensibly) YA books in a row set in England  (although Bradley is Canadian, whereas Haddon and Pratchett are British), and each one has been remarkable in its own way. The funny thing is, I’ve actually owned The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie since I got my first kindle back in August of 2009. It was a new release, and in my frenzy to collect books I might someday read on this novel device, I bought it and it has languished there ever since.

Well, that’s not exactly true. I actually tried to read this book four or five times in the past, and I had never gotten past the first chapter. I’m a firm believer in the patience of books though, and when, this past Friday, I was looking for something to curl up with, here it was. This time, I had no problem getting past the first few pages.  What I did have difficulty with was getting laundry done, baking bread for dinner, doing the dishes that piled up stickily in our sink…

I was completely enthralled. It was physically painful to put this book down and go on to other things – important things, things that couldn’t be avoided at all, but which I desperately wanted to forget about in favor of this book. And that, of course, meant I finished it far too quickly. I was moping around, thinking maybe I should have slipped a few of those critical tasks in just so that I could have spent a little longer with Flavia when I discovered that Bradley’s written more books about her. More! More Flavia? More science?! And poison! And well-wrought revenge?!! This was simultaneously the best and the worst news I could have gotten…or possibly that “very important things” could have received.


Alan Bradley (and Flavia) can be found here.

Beekeeping for Beginners, Laurie R King

After my successful experience with the audiobook Bossypants, I decided I should try out some more authors before I committed to downloading a few for the two fourteen hour flights I have in October. Since I had to go to San Diego last weekend anyway, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to explore my options. I called my mother (she used to write reviews for the magazine AudioFile and has been an avid listener for fifteen years at least) to get some advice, and although I couldn’t find all of the titles she recommended either at the library (why does the library make it so difficult to download audio books?!) or through iTunes, I did manage to pick a few, including a short story about Sherlock Holmes by King.

King has written quite a few of these stories, and the one recommended to me was more of a background piece than a stand-alone novel; however, the fortunate thing about Sherlock Holmes is that, given all the interpretations on the original character, it isn’t too difficult to pick up anywhere and follow along. The only real necessity is familiarity with the characters, and thanks to the recent fascination with Holmes on big screen and small, many people who have never read the original text have a solid background in that regard.

I have to admit that both the BBC’s brilliant version and the more comical Downey/Law interpretation have piqued my interest right along with the masses, and although I generally don’t have much interest in detective stories, I now find myself drawn into the stories of Sherlock Holmes’ compelling intellect. One of things I find especially interesting, and which is particularly relevant to my experience listening to Beekeeping for Beginners (which introduces a woman named Mary Russell as his apprentice, and apparently, a later love interest) is how differently Holmes is painted, not as a detective, but as a romantic character by different writers.

My own fascination with this part of his personality has only increased after the most recent depictions of Holmes lean hard on the idea that his relationship with Watson is more than friendship. Fans, especially of the BBC show, are intensely invested in these two men as a couple, and although I certainly see what they see (the tenderness exhibited by both Watson and Holmes, the love and protection and support provided by each at unexpected moments, the enjoyment in each other’s company over all others), I love even more the idea of Sherlock as a man uninterested in romantic attachments of any kind.

Perhaps it’s because I have a number of friends with little to no interest in finding a life partner that I find it almost offensive that we place desires in Holmes simply because, I believe, we want him to be a little more relatable.  People are marginalized in many ways because of who they want to love and how they want to love them, but it’s also true that we shun the idea that anyone might want a life without sexual attachments. This doesn’t mean such people don’t seek deep friendships or work just as hard to build community – it’s just that a part of them also chooses to remain separate.

My experiences working with children on the Autistic spectrum has given me continuous insight into the complexity of the ability to develop “typical” relationships. Please understand I’m not suggesting that people uninterested in romantic relationships are on that spectrum, but rather, that working with those children opened my mind to the huge number of possibilities outside of my own narrow band of experiences. When I read or watch stories about Sherlock Holmes, I often feel, as I did a bit in Beekeeping for Beginners, that we are trying to project a softness in him that simply doesn’t exist. The magic of the character is, for me at least, in his highly rational, unparalleled intellect. Those uncanny deductions that allow writers to create complex mysteries around him also keep Holmes apart from the rest of the world.

I finally went to Wikipedia to see if I could confirm any of my own impressions about the man, and here is what I found under “Relationships”:

Although Holmes appears to show initial interest in some female clients, Watson says he inevitably “manifested no further interest in the client when once she had ceased to be the centre of one of his problems”. Holmes finds their youth, beauty, and energy (and the cases they bring him) invigorating, distinct from any romantic interest. These episodes show Holmes possesses a degree of charm; yet apart from the case of Irene Adler (“A Scandal in Bohemia”), there is no indication of a serious or long-term interest. Watson states that Holmes has an “aversion to women” but “a peculiarly ingratiating way with [them]”. Holmes states, “I am not a whole-souled admirer of womankind”; in fact, he finds “the motives of women… so inscrutable…. How can you build on such quicksand? Their most trivial actions may mean volumes;… their most extraordinary conduct may depend upon a hairpin”.

Since the person fans most suspect Sherlock of being in love with is, in fact, Watson, this understanding of his relationships with women makes sense. If he is in love with another man, of course he wouldn’t pursue these characters (although King certainly believes that he could and would do so). Why though, does he have to be in love with Watson? Why can he not just be grateful (and a little off-balance) at the appearance of a devoted friend in his life?

I think it all comes back to our desire to relate more intimately with this brilliant and remote character. We do this with every book we read, with every experience we hear about – everything and everyone means more to us when we can find a connection to ourselves – but Holmes is meant to be an enigma. We are supposed to relate to Watson or to Mrs. Hudson, and through them, we experience the fascination and frustrations that come with caring about a person like Holmes.

Sherlock Holmes acts without warning, experiences deep depressions, uses drugs to alleviate his distress, and can be infuriating when on a case. He is truthful to a fault and has a brain that works at such an unpredictably deep level that for most people he encounters (and this includes us as readers), we will be put off, whether we intend to be or not. He is a difficult, brilliant man and even when he is voiced by the warm-throated Robert Ian MacKenzie, he is not the chap you meet up with at a pub. He is a deeply flawed super hero with the ability to protect us from horrors we might not ever see coming. We need men and women like that, but we don’t always need to make those people exactly like us.

Learn more about Laurie R King here.

Harper Connelly Mysteries (Books 1-4), Charlaine Harris

Although I won’t post this until Monday morning in deference to the schedule I like to adhere to, I’m writing it on Friday. It’s important that I mention that in this instance because although I finished the fourth one of these books last night and had already been considering what to write about, when I woke up at 5 this morning (thank you east coast jet lag), the very first thing I heard about when I checked the internet was the shooting in Colorado.  As of now, twelve people are dead and at least fifty have been treated for related injuries. The alleged shooter is in custody, and although I’m sure more details will leak out before this review goes up, I felt I have to look at in relation to this particular series of books.

Last night before bed, I performed a relaxation ritual that I often use when I’ve read or watched something that provokes a lot of anxiety when I try to fall asleep. This series of mysteries by Harris focuses on crimes against children, and I was especially struggling with some of the images invoked.  I lay and thought about the really horrible things that are going on right now all over the world (when I’m doing this exercise, I intentionally don’t censor myself – the point is to get all the ideas hiding at the corners of my mind out into the open), and after a few minutes, I forced myself to stop and consider all the wonderful people out there who are trying to counteract the horrors I had imagined. Finally, I reminded myself that it’s a balancing act, and the world will always have its share of light and darkness.

It worked well. I fell asleep quickly and I didn’t have any of the hyper-vivid nightmares that I usually do. Unfortunately, when I woke up, the balance had been tipped. I found myself remembering Columbine and the months afterward when school shootings were on the rise. I was a junior in high school then, and I still remember how afraid I was when I understood that people I considered my peers could be capable of such unexpected violence.

I was so angry then, and I am now, that the system fails as often as it does – that so many deeply troubled people fall through the cracks – and that the result is horrific violence. And I was amazed by how much thinking about that tied into my experience over the last week reading these books about a young woman who can find the dead. Harris creates a character who is likable, but deeply damaged,a woman who makes her living experiencing the last moments of the deceased, and who has to remove herself in large part from the outside world in order to remain sane.

Harper Connelly really isn’t the most pleasant character I’ve ever read, but I found myself drawn to her because for all her faults, she’s honest. Although she is far outside the normal flow of humanity, she manages to tether herself to the fringes by holding onto a certain bluntness, and a balanced view of what other people are capable of. She witnesses the worst last moments of any corpse she comes across (and if she’s to be believed, the dead are everywhere), yet she continues to work, to build relationships, and to hope that the law enforcement and victims’ families and clients who employ her will do their best to listen to voices of the dead and learn from them.

I could imagine that seeing the last few moments of a person’s death would be difficult, to say the least, but Harper handles it with only the idea that the dead want to be found, and heard, to comfort her. She doesn’t see who kills them. She can’t help them. She has no superpower beyond her own brain when it comes to solving a case. Most importantly, she has more reason than most to be filled with hatred and disgust toward humanity, but instead, she’s pragmatic about the terrible stories she discovers in many graves. It’s the balance she exhibits that draws me to her. In the face of tragedy, she moves mourning aside to make room for problem solving. She sees justice – true justice, not revenge or vigilante recklessness – as the best gift she can give to any of the bodies she finds.

As I struggle to make sense out of what happened this morning, I have to make myself remember that sense of equilibrium. I try to believe that one event doesn’t misalign the entire universe (although I have no doubt of the damage it has done to those involved), and that while I can’t stop the awful things happening around the world, I do have control over what I do in response. It serves as a reminder that I need to hold myself responsible for the way I behave toward others, that I need to practice compassion until I’m exhausted and then keep practicing it still, that I need to be thankful for all the people in Aurora who will reach out after this to help the families affected. I even have to remember the young man who caused all this pain and hope that this incident will encourage people to be more aware of how others around them might be struggling. Our attention and empathy are the first line of defense against situations like this one happening again.

As Plato once said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

For more information about Charlaine Harris, go here.