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.

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

Let the Circle Be Unbroken

Home to Holly Springs
by Jan Karon

One of my secret guilty pleasures is the Mitford series by Jan Karon. Too quaint, bordering on maudlin, pat plot lines … but, oh, do I love Father Tim, Cynthia, Dooley, and all the animal and human characters that make up life in Mitford. Interestingly, I started the books before I returned to the Church–and even though I was not what I’d call a praying girl at the time, I wasn’t at all put off by Father Tim’s rather sentimental vision of God and life in the church. For goshsakes I even read the prayers Father offered up!

Jan Karon “ended” the Mitford series with Light From Heaven … and shortly after began her new Father Tim series. My guess is that Karon wanted to be free from the confines of Mitford, and Home to Holly Springs takes Father Tim Kavenaugh out of North Carolina and back to his birthplace in Mississippi. Readers of the Mitford series know that Tim had a problematic relationship with his father, and never quite healed from the loss of both his mother and housekeeper Peggy. I suspected (quite rightly) that Karon would use this book to unbury those family secrets.

And reveal she did. The novel was again filled with God-driven “coincidences” and quirky characters, woven together with Father Tim’s childhood memories. Many of those memories were ones faithful readers had heard bits and pieces of before, but were fleshed out to fill in his childhood–and, on the whole, those stories were Karon’s strongest. My biggest disappointment were the secondary characters, of which she probably had more than necessary. Many of them seemed added simply to advance the story–unlike those strong Mitford characters, they were easily skimmed over and forgotten, save two or three. (But that was also my criticism of her later Mitford books as well.)

I read Home in a day and wouldn’t have needed (or wanted) to spend any more time on it. It was satisfying only because it was like having coffee with a long-lost friend. It was also a weepy read–partly Karon’s sentimentality, partly the love between Tim and Cynthia, and partly because I was horribly home-sick for my children. Not nearly as endearing (or enduring, I fear) than those early Mitford books, I will probably still be up for the next book in the series In the Company of Others, if only to spend some more time with Father Tim. .

Just started: Last Guard Out by Jim Albright. Purchased at Alcatraz on my recent trip to San Francisco, it is the account of one of the last guards to serve at “The Rock”.

Pretty is as pretty does

by Scott Westerfeld

I had no intention of reading this entire YA series; to be honest, I only read Scott Westerfeld’s first book, Uglies, because I promised some students I would (see my post from June 15, 2010). But Westerfeld left the reader hanging at the end of Uglies, the publisher cunningly included a five page teaser to Pretties at the end … and I was hooked.

Readers of Uglies will not be disappointed. Definitely geared for young adult readers (and probably girls, at that), the novel continues to explore our culture’s preoccupation with physical beauty. Tally Youngblood and her friend Shay have finally become pretty. As the novel opens, Shay, in fact, has just “surged” again, and now has twelve tiny rubies implanted around her iris’. The girls’ lives center around a series of over-the-top parties and dances … and then recovering from hangovers the next day.

[spoiler alert]

Pretties, however, addresses some intriguing subtleties of this future world. While it is true that pretty “beauty” is fairly standardized (large eyes, full lips, unblemished skin, long limbs), we also learn that new pretty muscles are strong and pretties rarely become sick; most injuries can be quickly and easily
repaired. Pretties organize themselves into cliques–the Crims, the Hot-airs, the Cutters–something every teen can relate to. And maybe most intriguing, the idea of being “bubbly”–that adreneline rush or exhileration that comes with taking  risks or pushing boundaries.And in an interesting twist, we discover that this world of pacifists studies violent behavior by holding a group of pre-Rusties on a reservation.

Readers of Uglies know that Tally undergoes her pretty surgery knowing that the accompanying brain lesions will leave her vacuous and inane–and also knowing that she would be smuggled a cure from an ugly doctor. When Tally and her boyfriend Zane find the cure after a wild hunt, Tally decides she will divide the pills between them–to disastrous results. Most of the novel follows Tally in yet another escape to the Smoke. And once again the novel ends with a cliffhanger.

Young adult readers will appreciate Westerfeld’s frank treatment of sex, alcohol, and rebellion. Parents can rest assured, however, that the author does not titallate–while we know Tally sleeps with her boyfriend, there is no mention of having sex; hangovers are just as miserable in Pretty Town as they are in our world; and rebellion takes the form of outrageous pranks, as opposed to any bitter hatred of adults.

A little bit Harry Potter (think Harry’s Nimbus and Tally’s hoverboard), with a dash of Star Trek (think body scans and protoplasers), add some teen angst, and you’ve got Pretties. Now … on to Specials, third in the series!

Next up: Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler, August’s Chicks on Books read.

Summer daze

by Scott Westerfield

It was during a classroom discussion of Fahrenheit 451 that one of my students said, “This is just like the Uglies.” What followed was a rather confusing rush of plot tidbits from two or three of the girls. I’m not sure the novel even sounded interesting to me at that point, but I made the promise to read it this summer–just as I did last summer with Twilight.

Uglies is a dystopian young adult novel (a kind of Giver for teens) about a world divided into groups based on looks and age: littlies, uglies, new-Pretties, mid-Pretties, and finally, Crumblies. At age sixteen everyone undergoes an operation to become a Pretty–bones are lengthened or shortened, skin removed, iris’ implanted, cheekbones sculpted, eyes widened. Pretties are then segregated into Pretty Town where they party wildly and indulge their passions.

As the story opens, Tally Youngblood is lonely, having lost her best friend Peris a few months before when he “turned”. Once prettified, Pretties no longer associate with Uglies. Then Tally meets Shay and the two Uglies become fast friends. Shay, however, has plans to escape her turning–she claims not to want the operation–and has made a few inroads with runaways who live in the Smoke. While Tally tries to convince Shay not to run, Shay is true to her word and disappears only days before her turning. Though saddened at the loss of yet another friend, Tally is still eager for her own operation.

Special Operations, however, has other plans. Tally is blackmailed into leading the authorities to Shay and the Smoke–her refusal would mean she would stay ugly forever. Tally eventually makes her way to Shay and is intrigued by life in the secret settlement. In the Smoke she reads magazines in the library and sees that hundreds of years in the past everyone was ugly–weight, height, eye and skin color all differed from person t0 person. Tally finds satisfaction in the Smoke, and falls in love with David, an ugly who has never lived in a city. A twist of fate brings down the Smoke and the rest of the book sees Tally trying to free those captured by Special Operations (such a blatant pun!)–and in the process Tally discovers the awful secret David’s parents had uncovered.

[spoiler alert]

Westerfield attacks our preoccupation with outer beauty and touches on the idea of lookism. Teens who are bombarded (and often overwhelmed) by media and social pressure to measure up to a certain standard of beauty will find the novel compelling. And while I rarely read the second volume of these teen trilogies, I found myself wondering … what will happen to Tally after her operation? Will she remember the promise she made to find a cure …

… to be continued?! Whatever the case, on a cloudy summer afternoon I was pleased to find myself in that reading fog that only comes from reading for hours and hours–oblivious to the demands of the everyday. It is truly summer.