Flavia fever

The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag
by Alan Bradley

It took me a more pages than I was comfortable with to admit I liked Alan Bradley’s first Flavia DeLuce novel, Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. I am not a murder-mystery fan, so that may have been part of it. Or maybe what kept me snagged were the incredibly precise chemistry references far beyond my knowledge–but I am a closet Anglophile, a former eleven-year-old girl, and someone who often lives in a melodramatic story-world myself … so what was not to like?  I read Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag with no such reservations and enjoyed every word of it, chemistry or not.

When we catch up with Buckshaw’s residents, Flavia is still mired in constant warfare with her older sisters Daffy and Feely, and Father still hides behind his stamps. Dogger and Mrs. Mullet still hold the seams of the family together, shell-shock and horrid food notwithstanding. And Flavia’s beloved bicycle Gladys still transports her all over Bishop’s Lacey and its environs–and it is Gladys herself who brings Flavia to St. Tancred’s churchyard where she meets Rupert Porson, famed puppeteer of the BBC’s Magic Kingdom television program. In order to pay for repairs to his broken-down caravan, Rupert and his lovely assistant Nialla agree to put on a puppet show in the parish hall.

Enter a mad hermitess, a grief-crazed mother, an unmarried pregnant Mother Goose, a former German POW, and a marijuana (that of the “weed” in the title) growing farmer and you’ve got a Flavia DeLuce novel of the best sort.

The impromptu puppet show ends with a murder, and Flavia sets out (of course) to unravel the mystery. Along the way she uncovers a love affair, reconstructs the truth behind an accidental death, and rescues a suicide with an antidote of (what else?) dove guano! Then, step-by-step Flavia  unfolds her discoveries to her idol Inspector Hewitt. How can one not love this little girl?.

Maybe it was just that I was familiar with the pace of Bradley’s stories and the rhythm of his writing, but this mystery was a more enjoyable read. Or perhaps it was just because I was happy to enter again this quaint and familiar world. After Sweetness I wasn’t certain I’d read Bradley’s second novel; After Weed, I’m anxious for his third.

Stay with this one

If I Stay
by Gayle Forman

Recommended on NPR’s “You Must Read This” feature, If I Stay is a young-adult novel that doesn’t read like one: the writing is evocative, the story isn’t maudlin, the romance almost (!) believable. The novel does have the quick-read characteristic of YA, though–no dense writing here. The premise, however, is heavy: a well-adjusted (maybe a bit too much?) family sets out on a snow day adventure and in the slip of a tire is involved in a fatal crash. Daughter Mia, the 17-year-old protagonist, walks along the side of the road and sees her mother and father, dead. Then she comes upon herself being frantically worked on by paramedics and loaded into a screaming ambulance. Is she dead, she wonders, as she climbs in to the ambulance and heads to the hospital?

Mia can’t feel her body, nor can she walk through walls and people like the ghosts she’s seen in movies; this sidelined Mia doesn’t feel pain. Caught in uncertainty, Mia watches, listens, and struggles to make sense of her new self. We watch her dear Gram and Gramp visit; we see friends and extended family arrive to hold vigil. And all the while, Forman takes us back and forth through Mia’s short seventeen years as she remembers … the birth of her brother, her punk dad’s transformation to retro hipster, her first kiss, summer at music camp, a Labor Day picnic. Never maudlin, Forman’s writing is clean and offers a beautiful elegy for a girl not yet dead.

Some of the health care professionals come off  a bit harsh and unfeeling; this would be a great read for student nurses and doctors. Forman is not pedantic–I worried throughout the book that it would turn into a treatise for pulling the plug as Mia’s family tried to make sense of her chances for recovery. I fretted that there would be a grand heavenly reunion with her family–which I hate in any young adult movie, song, or book, given the suicide rate among my often-depressed high school students. No, the choice to stay (or leave) was Mia’s. During a visit, Mia’s favorite nurse Ramirez encourages her grandparents to talk to her: “She’s running the show. Maybe she’s just biding her time. So you talk to her. You tell her to take all the time she needs, but to come on back. You’re waiting for her.”

And so we wait for Mia to decide.

[A word about the title of this post–in the tradition of many newer YA series, my paperback copy included a few pages of Forman’s sequel Where She Went. Run, don’t walk away from this book! It was everything awful about teen fiction–everything If I Stay was not.]

Almost elegant

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand
by Helen Simonson

I settled into this book like a cat on a lap–it was a comfortable story, warm and familiar, and not overly challenging. Kind of a second or third cousin to Elegance of the Hedgehog with a nod to Remains of the Day, I felt right at home. (It need not be a spoiler alert, though, to say that the ending of Pettigrew was more satisfying than either of those novels … or was it?) Having heard the author interviewed on NPR, and then hearing Diane Rehm’s Reader’s Review this past summer, it was on my wish list just waiting for paperback release.

We meet both the Major and Mrs. Ali, the novel’s two main characters, when Mrs. Ali comes to collect newspaper money– and Major Pettigrew is reeling from a phone call telling him his brother Bertie died the night before. While their relationship has been up to this point one of a friendly shopkeeper and loyal customer, sharing such an intimate moment brings a momentous change. A widower for years, Major Pettigrew’s life has slowly stiffened and grown circumspect–and Mrs. Ali, a beautiful widow, exotic in her Pakistani heritage and lovely in her sensitive demeanor, begins to soften the carefully drawn lines of his existence.

As might be expected (or perhaps only to fulfill a British stereotype), the village of Edgecombe St. Mary is unsettled by this “unseemly” friendship. Running parallel to the Major’s story is the story of his son Roger and his American fiance Sandy, and Mrs. Ali’s nephew Abdul Wahid and his wild-child lover Amina. In all we see the painful reality (and sometimes comedy) of lives bound up in deceit and tradition, rather than simply giving over to love. A minor story involving a Lord Dagenham, a pushy American land developer, and a pair of treasured Churchill shotguns seems unnecessary at times–or perhaps it is only included as a foil for the novel’s musty tradition motif.

Definitely a good read for back-to-back snow days.

Ten hours

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter
by Tom Franklin

Post-Christmas open house found me sluggish, lounging on the sofa in my pj’s until 4 PM–and devouring Tom Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter in a mere ten hours. Set in Mississippi in the early seventies and the present, the novel explores the lives of two men, one black, one white, following the murder of a teenage girl in their town. Larry Ott, for years convicted of the crime in the court of public opinion (although no body was ever found, nor did he ever confess), is the town loner, and his (sometimes) black friend Silas Jones returns to his hometown as town constable after serving several years on the police force in Oxford, Mississippi. Their lives connect again when another young woman comes up missing–and Larry Ott is once again the prime suspect.

Franklin wove his narrative in such a way that I was never slowed by the back story he needed to tell. The novel, suprisingly, begins with Larry’s murder-gone-wrong. Silas finds himself drawn back to Larry’s home to gain perspective on their broken childhood friendship. As happens in most Southern novels, Silas discovers a secret in the attic–literally–and tries to come to terms with its implications for the rest of the novel. Silas also has harbored some information for thirty years that would have implicated himself, rather than Larry, in the past murder.

The book’s back cover blurb called the book a “thriller” and suspense novel, which was much too heavy-handed in my view. At novel’s end, we see both men close one door and open another. Silas comes to understand the redemptive power of truth, and Larry begins to learn the strength found in community–but both somewhat grudgingly, and only after suffering in isolation for much too long.

Hungry for more?

Hunger Games
by Suzanne Collins

This summer I read Scott Westerfeld’s Pretties/Uglies series and loved the fresh-take on storytelling in Young Adult novels. One member of our bookclub has been campaigning for Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games for a few months, and I wanted to quickly read it so I could get on to my Christmas break books! Perhaps it was my rush, or my glut of Westerfeld this summer, but these critically acclaimed YA novels didn’t make me immediately order the next in the series, as I did after reading The Uglies.

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the novel–I stayed up late trying to finish it last night, and did so this morning with my coffee. Another futuristic science fiction  novel, the story line had many similarities to Westerfeld’s books: an individualistic, rebellious teen girl fights the constraints of a dystopian society. Katniss Everdeen offers herself up to take the place of her cherished little sister, Prim, when the youngster is chosen ala The Lottery to be a “tribute” (or participant) in the country’s Hunger Games. The games, apparently, were instituted some fifty years previously to control the populace with fear and intimidation. Each year, two tributes are chosen from each District and fight to the death in a wilderness arena. Katniss can’t bear the thought of  the tender, naive Prim enduring such depravity and, even though their District has won only once, feels she stands something of a chance due to her experience as a hunter.

[spoiler alert]

What follows is a weeks’ long cat-and-mouse game between the twenty-four tributes. Of course, since Kat is the novel’s heroine, she does well in eluding the other participants. And since this is a young adult novel, there is the requisite love story between Kat and her District partner Peeta Mellark.. It is apparent that Peeta has been a long-time admirer of Kat’s, although she is oblivious to his affections. When their trainer suggests that they will stand a better chance of winning sponsorships and audience support if they act as star-crossed lovers, Katniss plays along. Or does she?

The cliff hanger must be a convention of YA series, and this one is no exception. And while I’m tempted to find out what happens to Kat and Peeta after they arrive home to Victory Village, this time I’m full, thank you very much.

Next up: Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier