Flavia ūüíĖ: Golden Tresses of the Dead (review)

We are expecting a big storm here in the Great Lakes starting midnight Sunday. Forget about the local TV weather forecasters who yell “SNOWMAGEDDON!” at the first flake–even the U.S. National Weather Service in our area says that between tonight and Wednesday we are due for 11″ of snow and the wind chill will be “dangerous if not life threatening”. Holy CO2, Batman!

So knowing I’ll be stuck indoors for at least a couple days, and knowing there’s only so much cookie baking a Weight Watcher can do, and knowing I’m not much of a movie buff … well, I just wish I had seen this weather coming, so I could have saved Alan Bradley’s new Flavia mystery, The Golden Tresses of the Dead for a day tucked onto the couch.

Because nothing says comfort like Flavia. She’s predictable. Good, clean fun. And oh-so-familiar. This is Book #10 in the series and I haven’t missed one. I wrote about #9 here and #8 here and even threw in a little Flavia trivia here. At the end of The Grave’s a Fine & Private Place, Flavia inherits Buckshaw and settles on it as the home of Arthur W. Dogger & Associates–Discreet Investigations. And if Golden Tresses is any indication, there’s a new Flavia on the horizon.

Which makes some sense. Flavia is inching ever closer to her teens, and she’s starting to set aside her impetuous nature in favor of one more focused on attuning her sleuthing skills under the direction of Dogger. (That is Dogger of the Arthur W. Dogger and Flavia of the & Associates.) So while her mind is still sharp–Flavia is first to suspect Miss Truelove, head of St. Tancrid’s Altar Guild, has a hand in the matter and sniffs around her cottage for clues–she is quick to watch Dogger question witnesses and dissemble to the police. We even find Dogger lending a hand in Flavia’s chemical laboratory and the two share a desk.

But don’t be dismayed. Outlandish turn of events still govern Flavia’s world: we have a dismembered finger in a wedding cake, a client found poisoned by African beans in her cottage, a dead rat in the bottom of a travel bag, a ‘senile’ huckster dissembling in a nursing home. And writer Alan Bradley clearly has Flavia’s young cousin Undine stepping in to fill the juvenile shoes Flavia is outgrowing–Undine is loud, intelligent, loves a good joke, and fond of fingerprints. (Sound like another little girl we know knew?)

I suppose I could quibble with some blind alleys in the plot and characters that seem unnecessary. But I treat my series like my friends and I can overlook a number of flaws because there’s that undying devotion. I’m curious to know where the series is going. When he wrote Sweetness¬†at¬†the¬†Bottom¬†of¬†the¬†Pie in 2009, Bradley planned ten Flavia mysteries. And Mr. Bradley is now eighty-one-years-old. So conceivably, this could be the last Flavia book.

But I sure hope it’s not.

Once Upon a River: review

Once Upon a River
Diane Setterfield
Simon & Schuster (December 2018)


It was a dark winter night. The solstice, to be exact. A man, face battered and bloodied, bursts in the door of the Swan Inn holding a small limp body. He collapses. When the village nurse Rita Sunday arrives to care for the man, she first checks the girl. No pulse, skin pale, pupils wide. Rita announces the poor girl dead–drowned in the river Thames, most likely–has her carried to an outbuilding to await burial, then turns her attention to stitching up the man.


No stranger to drowning deaths, Rita senses something is not right when she returns to tend to the child’s body. She tries to put together the circumstances which led to both the man’s injury and the girl’s death.

And then “the corpse opened its eyes”.

From there, Diane Setterfield’s latest novel Once¬†Upon¬†a¬†River is off on a meandering tale of mistaken identity and longing and lost love.

What makes it all the more delicious is that the story pivots around the 600-year-old Swan Inn which is where one goes for storytelling in the village of Radcot. Each evening, villagers gather to listen to tales. Storytellers hone their craft at the Swan, coached and critiqued by other raconteurs, even arguing over ways to enliven the telling of a story. In her own telling, Setterfield mirrors those storytellers of long ago and the lilt of the dialog, the turn of a phrase, the twist and turn of the plot–all lend the novel a kind of fairytale charm.

So we have the story of Mr. Vaughan and his beautiful wife Helena, who mourn their firstborn, a daughter stolen away in the night only two years before. (Can the child possibly be the Vaughan’s lost toddler Amelia?) We learn of Robert Armstrong, a freed slave, and his crippled wife Bess–of their wayward son Robin and the granddaughter they’ve never met. (Or perhaps the girl is the Armstrong’s granddaughter Alice?) And Lily White, the parson’s housekeeper who lives at the edge of the river’s flood plain in the Basketman’s Cottage, frightfully abused by a con-man and swindler and still grieving over the sister she lost those many years ago. (Is it possible that the little girl is Lily’s sister Ann?)

I liked The¬†Thirteenth¬†Tale, but with reservations. We won’t even talk about Bellman¬†and¬†Black. (You can read my review here.) But Diane Setterfield has created magic with River. If you love Gothic, if you’re drawn to enchantment and all that is delightful–it’s not one to miss.

The Half Brother: review

The Half Brother
Holly LeCraw
Doubleday (2015)

Holly LeCraw’s novel The¬†Half¬†Brother is one of those family-with-a-secret-sagas and a story of forbidden love.

And then it becomes something more.

Charlie Garrett is the son of a single mother. The father he never knew died, ostensibly, in Vietnam. Then his mother married the wealthy Hugh Satterthwaite when he was ten, and life changed forever. Charlie went to a private school, moved into a big Tudor home in Atlanta, went to Harvard. And Nick came along–his cherished half-brother. Athletic, charming, and loved by all. So different from the bookish, self-conscious Charlie.

half brother

But Charlie does just fine after all. He graduates from Harvard and gets a job at the prestigious Abbott School, a prep school in Massachusetts. At twenty-two, as young men often do, he became besotted by the charismatic chaplain, Preston Bankhead. Charlie was drawn to Bankhead’s picture-perfect family: three blond boys, a pretty wife, a beautiful young daughter. The Bankhead’s lived in a rambling old home that bubbled over with life.

Until it didn’t.

Charlie finds himself pulled into the family’s drama. There’s a divorce. Cancer. Death. And an especially troubling? confusing? affair with that beautiful Bankhead daughter, May, nearly ten years Charlie’s junior. It is in the midst of that love affair, that a secret is revealed–one that would destroy May if she found out … and truth be told, nearly destroyed Charlie himself.

And what about Charlie’s half-brother, Nick? That golden boy. The humanitarian who, when he graduated Harvard, worked with NGOs in African and the Middle East–and who eventually came to teach with Charlie at the Abbott School. He, too, feels the pull of May Bankhead.

So you’ve got that. An intriguing family saga that is so well-written it just might be enough.

But for me, the beauty of The Half Brother was how finely writer Holly LeCraw drew her characters. We watch them turn those family secrets over and over, trying to make sense of them. Trying to squeeze out every last bit of the why and somehow still carrying on.

I’ve also not read a novel that so realistically caught the day-to-day of a teacher’s life–of the theatrics that take place in front of the class and the grind that takes place after. Of the multitude of actions and reactions a teacher must consider every waking moment.

LeCraw’s prose is lush, her description evocative. For the writerly, it is a joy to read.

And if you need a recommendation other than my own? I added the book to my wish list after hearing Nancy Pearl sing its praises on NPR’s Morning Edition way back in 2015. It was quite an under-the-radar list Pearl suggested that day–the same broadcast also gave me Etta and Otto and Russell and James and Unbecoming. Keepers all, dear readers. Keepers all.

Educated: a memoir (review)

Educated: a memoir
Tara Westover
Random House (2018)

I used to try to get my high school students (at least once a year and usually when reading Bradbury’s Fahrenheit¬†451) to think about the difference between ‘education’ and ‘schooling’. Most seemed to think that they were receiving an education in their daily classes. My contention was that they were getting their schooling. How they interacted and applied the ideas they learned, what they did with the information–now that was education. Too many people stop at schooling and call it education. And to be successful, I’m pretty certain you need both.

Tara Westover’s memoir Educated is as good as every review you might have read since its publication in February. The book was my book club’s December pick and while it made for great discussion I couldn’t help but wish that it was required reading for every young person. Because only after she got her schooling did Tara become educated–in knowledge and understanding, sure. But also in love and life and what it means to persevere.

Tara Westover grew up in a survivalist family on a mountain in Idaho. Her father dealt scrap metal, and her mother was a midwife and herbalist. An older brother called Shawn in the book (many first names were changed according to an introductory note) physically and verbally abused both of his sisters. Tara’s ‘homeschooling’ consisted of learning to read and basic arithmetic, but by the time she was seven or eight, she was working in the scrap yard or helping her mother bottle tinctures. Her father’s fear that government agents were always ready to strike meant that Tara had a to-go bag under her bed, ready to flee to the hills. She had nightmares about the Randy Weaver and the Ruby Ridge incident. Tara Westover was sometimes hungry. She was often lonely.

At an older brother’s urging, Tara began preparing her escape at age sixteen–her goal, at first, was simply to teach herself the content she would encounter on the ACT. After two tries, her scores were college ready and she was accepted to Brigham Young University.

She left. And to say her adjustment was difficult is an understatement.

Tara lived in an off campus with two other girls and had little idea that people didn’t leave rotting food and trash on the counters with dirty dishes; that people showered regularly; that when they did shower, they used soap. She also had huge gaps in her understanding of the world and its history. Thinking she would ask questions, joining class discussion like the other students, Tara asked a professor what the word ‘holocaust’ meant on a lecture slide. The silence in the lecture hall, as they say, was deafening. But seventeen-year-old Tara had never heard of the Jewish holocaust.

Tara Westover not only succeeded at BYU–she went on to earn her PhD from Trinity College, Cambridge. She is an articulate and intelligent and amazing woman (just check out the interview links below). But always, always in those first years away from the mountain, she was dogged by a feeling that she was undeserving. That she was fraud. A cloud of shame shadowed every success.

How does one come to terms with a past like that? By making peace? Or cutting ties to a destructive family? How does a young person learn her place the world when she doesn’t know basic life skills, let alone
history? Spoiler alert (but not really!): the secret is in education.


Check out these interview links with Tara Westover:

Fresh Air (38 min.) audio
AfterWord (1 hour) video

Virgil Wander: review

Virgil Wander
Leif Enger
Grove Atlantic Press (October 2018)

Virgil WanderVirgil Wander (yes, that’s the main character’s name) thinks his “world began reorganizing itself” the day a stranger, Rune Eliassen, turned up in town–but I’m pretty sure the sea change in Virgil’s life¬†really began when he found himself launched off Highway 61 on a snowy autumn day, arcing over the guardrails and straight into Lake Superior. He doesn’t remember the accident, but he was told Marcus Jetty had been beach combing along the shore and managed to pull Virgil out before he sank to the bottom with his car.

Virgil’s memory is sketchy because he’s had a mild traumatic brain injury. It’s left him with a monster of a headache. Virgil has also lost his adjectives. He misreads faces. His motor skills are shaky. And months of his life are hazy at best, missing at worst. But lucky for Virgil, he lives in Greenstone, Minnesota, a hard-luck town whose residents are good-hearted and loyal, if not also a rag-tag of a bunch.

There is the town drunk Shad Pea who drowns when a sturgeon pulls him under one night and his young son Galen who vows to avenge his father’s death by catching the fish that killed him. There is the young widow Nadine, a tender and single-minded mother to her son Bjorn. Jerry Fandeen, a ne’er do well who straightens up and flies right–or so it seems until some explosives are involved–and his dynamo of a wife, Ann, who works with Virgil in the mayor’s office. A domesticated raccoon named Genghis who runs away and is the likely source of a rabies outbreak. And, of course, a villain–Adam Leer.¬† Rumored to have killed his older brother, he left town at sixteen. Little is known about the life of this Hollywood director who has now returned to live quietly in the empty family home.

A small-town story like this might even stand on its own, but¬†Virgil Wander¬†is all the richer for that stranger I mentioned. Rune is the long-lost father of one of¬† Virgil’s close friends, Alec Sandstrom, who disappeared over two decades ago. He flew a private plane out over the lake and never returned. Alec, a minor league pitcher for the Duluth-Superior Dukes had a wicked fast ball. He was also something of a cut-up–another small town eccentric–and his disappearance haunted his friends and family. There had even been some rumored Sandstrom sightings in Ontario. Northern California. Idaho. And now here is a father he never even knew. A Norwegian, in fact, traveling thousands of miles to gather stories about a son he never even knew he had.

Rune is also a kite maker and his fantastical kites are what draw Greenstonians to him. The kites are large and elaborate and seem to have a life of their own. There was a stained glass window. A cloudberry pie. A bicycle and a catfish and a fireplace “with a crooked brick chimney and flames of loose orange that flapped in the wind …” Because of Virgil’s brain injury, his doctor recommends he have someone stay with him for awhile, which Virgil dismisses until he almost burns down his apartment over¬† the Empress, a movie theater he owns and runs. So it is Rune who comes to live with Virgil, and while one of the men tries to remember pieces of his life, the other tries to piece together a life he had never known.¬†As their friendship deepens, Virgil finds himself much different from “the previous tenant” who inhabited his life. And so he builds a new life for himself, one in which puts aside his aimlessness and searches for purpose. Connection. And love.

But ohmygoodness it is the language in the novel that makes me swoon. The narrator speaks in¬† an oddly formal manner that endears him to the reader and, at the same time, adds to the story a mythical tone. Here’s Virgil on recovering language after the accident:

Within weeks certain prodigal words started filtering home. They came one at a time or in shy small groups. I remember when sea-kindly showed up, a sentimental favorite, followed by desiccated and massive. Brusque appeared all by itself, which seemed apt … this would be a good time to ask for your patience if I use an adjective too many now and then–even now, some years on, they’re still returning.

And this when Virgil warns his love that the accident has forever changed him:

“You know what you’re getting here, [Virgil] said. “I’m still fairly reduced. I may never be unabridged again.”

Of course the fact that the novel is set in a Great Lakes state with the sand dunes and gales off the lake and unpredictable storms I love–it’s all just too much. Much beauty. Much love. Much magic.


Here’s a video clip of Enger describing the novel.