Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d: review

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d
Alan Bradley
Delacorte Press

thrice the brinded cat hath mew'dLittle Flavia is growing up.

In her previous adventure, The Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust, as well as her new one, Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d, Flavia displays more poise and decorum than she ever thought possible. And she’s puzzled by a new-found tendency towards manners and small-talk. Flavia is twelve–and far from the little girl readers met eight books ago.

After only three months at Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy in Canada, Flavia is on her way home again to Buckshaw. Dogger, Father’s Man Friday, meets her at the train station alone, and with sobering news: Colonel De Luce is in hospital. And it’s serious–pneumonia.

Out of sorts that she can’t yet visit her father, Flavia sets out the next morning for St. Tancred, to visit with the vicar and Cynthia. And a simple errand for Cynthia turns up a dead body, a witch, and a famous children’s book author. But of course it does, because Flavia never goes for more than a few pages without turning up some sort of fiendish business. (As if title, a line from the witches’ scene in Macbeth, didn’t already warn us.)

What follows is classic Flavia. She probes. She swabs. She presses the unsuspecting for information. She mixes a few chemicals, and voila! Case solved. Every time I start a Flavia De Luce mystery, I brace myself. Has the charm worn off? After all this time, will the Girl Detective disappoint?

And the answer is always that Flavia is just as charming and delightful as ever. But this novel holds more than one twist of fate. The mystery solved, of course, and one deeply personal to Flavia–a fate that will change her life forever.

Wedding Bells: Come Rain or Come Shine (review)

Come Rain or Shine
Jan Karon
G.P. Putnam

It’s the month before Dooley and Lace’s wedding–Father Tim and Cynthia are living at Meadowgate holding down the fort and prepping both house and yard for the wedding. (Father Tim is charged with creating a lush, green lawn out of the weedy patches.) While Dooley finishes his last few weeks of vet school, Lace tries to find the perfect wedding dress, work on some commissioned paintings whenever she can grab a few minutes, and otherwise just tries to keep herself calm, cool, and collected.

come rain or come shineA flurry of Mitford characters come and go—some right in the thick of things, like Harley, who’s come out with Father Tim to lend a hand; and Lily Flower who has agreed to organize the potluck and kitchen duties on the Big Day. But other Mitfordians we know and love barely make an entrance—Hoppy and Olivia, Lace’s parents, rush in just before the wedding, and vet Hal and wife Marge Owen, living just over the hill from Meadowgate,  might as well have been in South Carolina. I missed that endearing cast of characters. We see them, mind you, (even more names are dropped as the wedding guests arrive), but we don’t spend much time with them.

 The storytelling was at times a bit jumbled with pages of Lace’s Dooley Book entries interspersed with characters’ memories used to fill in the back story, and even a pages- long wedding sermon by Father Tim (which I must admit flipping through quickly).At the beginning of the novel, especially, I was sometimes confused as to which character’s point of view I was reading.

The title refers to Dooley’s reassuring Lace, “It will be a great day … come rain or come shine” when she worries about the weather forecast. And of course, the weather provides a bit of drama, as does the arrival of a little secret Dooley and Lacey have been keeping from everyone.

I love Father Tim and Cynthia, and haven’t missed one of Jan Karon’s novels yet. But there was something about those first seven or eight books that was so delightfully fresh. I miss Barnabas and Violet and Miss Sadie and the Lord’s Chapel. It’s possible that as Father Tim and Cynthia age, Dooley and Lace could take their place. But the first Mitford book to lay the groundwork for that eventuality didn’t bear the promise I would have hoped for

But saying all this is a little like criticizing the fact that your great aunt Alice always brings the corn pudding to Christmas—and no one likes it—or that if Mom repeats that story about the time you ran away from Kindergarten one more time, you’ll scream. Because when you come right down to it, Father Tim prays. Cynthia makes lists. There’s a new puppy and dancing on the porch and harmonica playing.

We’re at home in Mitford, once again.

An itty bitty Flavia & an itty bitty review

I remember the months dragging on while I waited for another adventure with Fr. Tim from Jan Karon’s Mitford series, or, drumming my fingers with the rest of the world for another Harry Potter caper. My love for little Flavia De luce is just as abiding and it can be maddening knowing the last volume of the series, Chimney Sweepers Come To Dust,  was published only nine months ago, so the next Flavia romp is still months away.

curious copperBut O Happy Day! Bradley apparently released a short story just before the publication of Chimney Sweepers, a short story titled “The Curious Case Of the Copper Corpse”. How did I miss this one?! Once again, Amazon’s magical “We recommend” flashed it on my Daily Deals and lured me to send it to my Kindle–and quick as you can say “copper corpse”, I was off to Bishop’s Lacey riding alongside Flavia and her faithful Gladys.

In this story, Flavia is twelve and back at Buckshaw. A letter slipped under her door asks for her immediate help with a (you guessed it!) corpse, murdered and covered, inexplicably, in a thin film of copper. At Greyminster, the boys’ school just down the way. The student who sent the note (one Haxton or Plaxton–the scrawl was difficult to decipher) is frantic, as anyone would be if they found a dead body in the bathtub down the hall. Flavia sniffs around, questions a few boys, sits demurly under a tree posing as a visiting sister, and–no surprise here!– solves the mystery 1-2-3.

Available only as an e-book, Curious Case is short. And fairly predictable. But in some ways that just why we read series, right? So if you just want to check in on Flavia to see how she’s doing, send it to your Kindle today.

Sailing the ocean blue: As Chimney Sweepers Come To Dust (review)

As Chimney Sweepers Come To Dust (DRC)
Alan Bradley
Delacorte Press
Release date: January 6, 2015

If you haven’t caught Flavia fever by now, you’re missing out on something special. Twelve-year-old Flavia de Luce is a chemist prodigy-turned-sleuth who has solved any number of thefts, murders, and kidnappings in her six previous adventures.  At the end of The Dead In Their Vaulted Arches we knew Flavia was bound for Canada to train for her role in an As Chimney Sweepers Come To Dust“ancient and hereditary” organization at Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy, the very same school her legendary mother Harriet attended.  And true to his word, Bradley opens As Chimney Sweepers Come To Dust with Flavia standing on the deck of an ocean liner–in a storm, covered in sea spray, planning the murder of her chaperone Mr. Rainsmith by champagne and bicarbonate of soda. Flavia fans would expect nothing less.

As to be expected, Flavia and boarding school prove to be an odd bedfellows. At home, playmates were decidedly missing, with Flavia preferring the company of the vicar’s wife and the police inspector. Just how would she manage the drama of dozen’s of girls living under one roof? It helps that she is quickly taken under the wing of the headmistress Miss  Faulthorne—who sympathizes with Flavia on a level she’s not accustomed to–and also finds out that these girls aren’t just any girls. They are, in fact, also members-in-training of Nide, the same group that Flavia’s Aunt Felicity told her she must “learn her way into” at the end of Vaulted Arches. It also helps that by the end of Chapter 2, a mummified body falls out of the fireplace in her room, its desiccated head rolling across the floor and landing at Flavia’s feet.

With that, Flavia is off and running. Those girls I worried about become no more than stand-ins for the adults she was accustomed to interviewing (and, truth be told, manipulating) as she parsed together the truth. As always, Flavia runs into some dead ends and meets any number of decoy characters. She jumps to conclusions and puts herself in danger. But truth she finds.

When I first realized at the end of book six that there would be no more Daphne or Dogger, no more Mrs. Mullet or Colonel, my heart dropped. Buckshaw and Bishop’s Lacey, along with her friends and family, were as much a part of the books’ charms (almost!) as Flavia. But just as the almost-a-teen Flavia was experiencing some growing pains, I, too, wanted to see how Flavia would manage outside the familiarity of Bishop’s Lacey. Bradley’s oh-so-perfect details help with our transition: a chemistry teacher who is an acclaimed—and acquitted—murderer; dorm rooms named after pioneering women (Florence Nightingale, Marie Curie, Edith Cavell); girls singing Ninety-nine bottles of arsenic on the wall. It’s a world of delights.

But it’s the magic of Flavia de Luce herself that successfully carries this little sleuth across the ocean, and us, the reader, with her.

Again and again

A Red Herring Without Mustard
Alan Bradley

I have a real problem with mysteries. I don’t like them. Add to that the fact that I’m an Anglophile and my problem gets curiouser and curiouser–for who does mysteries better than the British? Miss Marple? No thank you. Poirot? I’ll pass. Sherlock Holmes? Not so much. And I admit I’ve never even cracked a P.D. James. My husband just shakes his head. I think it may be the fear factor (I don’t do scary anything–books, movies, amusement park rides, Halloween horror houses) or it may be I get weary trying to keep every character straight. As for the clues–when they’re revealed at the book’s end, I find that I missed them entirely.

But for some reason, little Flavia DeLuce has just wormed her way into my heart and I’ll go anywhere for her–even into the heart of a mystery. I must say that the first novel was slow going what with all the chemistry references (so what the heck is magnesium silicate hydroxide anyway? And why should I care?!) But the house–glorious Buckshaw, all back stairways, damp wallpaper, musty Victorian (literally!) furniture–made the going easier. And Father–absent-minded, stamp-loving, grieving widower–drew me in. But of course it was 11-year-old Flavia–tormented little sister, precocious, desperately missing her mother–who has brought me back again and again.

Flavia befriends a gypsy after burning down (accidentally, of course!) her tent at a church fete. Offering  shelter on Buckshaw’s meadow lands, the Palings, Flavia visits the old woman the next day only to find her nearly bludgeoned to death. Enter the gypsy’s granddaughter Porcelain, add another body (Brookie Harwood, town swindler), a secret religious sect, the Hobblers, and you’ve got a Bradley-style mystery. And while in  Flavia encounters real danger in The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag, this time she escapes with only a sprained ankle.

In Red Herring we also get more from Flavia than ever before about her mother Harriet when she discovers a portrait, never claimed because of Harriet’s death and long stored at the artist’s cottage. Flavia describes her first look at the painting:“Harriet. My mother. She is sitting on the window box of the drawing room at Buckshaw. At her right hand, my sister Ophelia, aged about seven, plays with a cat’s cradle of red wool, its strands entangling her fingers like slender scarlet snakes. To Harriet’s left, my other sister, Daphne, although she is too young to read, uses a forefinger to mark her place in a large book: Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Harriet gazes tenderly down, a slight smile on her lips, like a Madonna, at the white bundle which she holds supported in the crook of her left arm: a child–a baby dressed in a white, trailing garment of elaborate and frothy lace–could it be a baptismal gown? I want to look at the mother but my eyes are drawn repeatedly back to the child. It is, of course, me.” 

I love the moments when Harriet reaches out to Flavia somehow–first her abandoned car; now the portrait. It is the mystery of Harriet that intrigues me more than lost heirlooms or murder. Something is left out of the story of Harriet’s death. But what? Take this from Flavia after she studies the portrait that first time: “Something about the portrait nagged at my mind: some half-forgotten thing that tried to surface as I stood staring at the easel … But what was it?” I’m guessing that we’ll find out what that “something” is, and perhaps even (some book soon?) find out more about the circumstances surrounding Harriet’s death disappearance. (See? Perhaps I’m getting into this mystery thing after all.)

And if writer Alan Bradley can get this mysteryphobe to return again and again–and soon another again!–then maybe I’m not so averse to mysteries after all. I just needed to find the right one.