The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place: review

The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place
Alan Bradley
Random House
release date: January 30, 2018

It’s certainly no secret that I have a little crush on Flavia de Luce. How could I not? She’s brilliant, confident, beguiling, and misunderstood. the grave's a fine and private place(I’m pretty sure I’ve reviewed all of her books on this blog!)) I couldn’t have been happier that Flavia returned to Buckshaw in Thrice the Brinded Cat after her brief interlude at Miss Bodycoate’s in Chimney Sweepers. While I’ve never gone on a Flavia adventure I haven’t loved, it was good to be home.

In The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place, the 9th Flavia mystery, Flavia, her sisters Feely and Daffy, and Dogger have gone on holiday to recover from a death in the family and spend time together before Buckshaw is sold. The girls will scatter in different directions (Flavia to London to live with Aunt Felicity), Dogger and Mrs. Mullet released from service. But while boating on a lazy river near Volesthorpe, Dogger points out St.-Mildred’s-in-the-Marsh, where just two years before one Canon Whitbread had poisoned three members of his congregation with tainted communion wine. And quick as you can say cyanide and strychnine, wouldn’t you know–Flavia pulls a corpse out of the river.

There’s the usual eccentric cast of characters. A flamboyant actress, Poppy Mandrill, who directs village plays in her retirement. The nosy Mrs. Palmer, innkeeper-cum-poet. A gambling funeral director. And even a beautiful old flame from Dogger’s past, Miss Claire Tetlock.

The plot and cast of characters are pretty much what readers have come to expect in an Alan Bradley novel. I have a pair of fuzzy slippers I slip on the moment I come home from work. They’re not fashionable designer slippers and my feet get what they expect: cozy comfort.  And just like those slippers, the plot of this novel is as familiar and comfortable as the ones that preceded it.

After the dramatic cliffhangers of the last two novels, the ending of The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place is a happy one. Or maybe promising is more accurate. In any case, Bradley leads us to believe that we are about to set off on a Flavia adventure of an entirely  different sort in book #10.

Running : Girl Last Seen & Unbecoming (reviews)

Girl Last Seen (NetGalley)
Nina Laurin
Grand Central Publishing/Hatchett Group


Unbecoming
Rebecca Scherm
Penguin

unbecomingTwo young women: Laine, a kidnap victim; and Julie, an accessory to a crime. Both are living under assumed names, supposedly for protection. Except, as both Girl Last Seen and Unbecoming demonstrate, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to run away from one’s past.

The stronger of the two novels is Unbecoming. Julie, nee Grace, is hiding out in France where she restores antiques at a small shop. She leads a quiet life and tries not to call attention to herself. It’s also a lonely life–because friendships would mean Grace would have to invent a past and keep track of her story. At the novel’s beginning, Grace gets word that her husband Riley and his best friend Alls are about to be paroled after spending three years in prison for a crime that she helped plan. What’s worse is the fact that Grace had planned her getaway with Alls … not her husband.

Grace met Riley when they were barely teens, and fell in love with his family. (And Riley, of course. Sort of.) The Grahams–especially Mrs. Graham–gave Grace a Leave it to Beaver family to belong to, one very different from her own. Mrs. Graham took on Grace as the daughter she never had, and Grace spent most of her days and nights with Riley’s family. The two secretly married the summer after Grace graduated high school, and Grace spent her life becoming what Riley needed her to be.

Grace studied art history at a prestigious art school in New York and had worked for an estate appraiser, so when a series of drunken hijinks left Riley owing money, they hatched the plan to rob the Wynne House, an estate in their hometown. Grace’s research leads her to discover that a small oil painting at Wynne House is rare and more than enough to get them out of trouble. They plan for Riley to reproduce the painting, after which they’d slip his copy in place of the original and escape to Europe. A fool proof plan, except for the fact that Grace and Alls spend forbidden night together, can’t deny their attraction any longer, and the two secretly arrange their escape.

But Grace ends up betraying both men, and now she has every reason to expect them to turn up on her doorstep, demanding … what, exactly? There’s no reason to spoil your reading of this suspenseful novel, but suffice it to say, Grace turns chameleon and becomes someone else again.

girl last seenNina Laurin’s Girl Last Seen is a novel that attempts to look at a girl on the milk carton after her rescue. And it’s not pretty. Laine, formerly Ella Santos, was held for nearly three years in a basement. Raped and tortured. Although Laine says, “Normal is something you can fake really well, if you try hard enough,” she isn’t doing a good job of it. Battling PTSD and anxiety, medicating herself with both legal and illegal prescriptions, and drinking to forget, Laine can barely hold on to her two jobs. Her shame runs deep, and her life is a mess. When ten-year-old Olivia Shaw disappears, now thirteen years after her own kidnapping, Laine finds herself drawn into the investigation.

Police suspect that the Laine’s kidnapper just might be the same man who abducted Olivia. The officer who rescued Laine ten years ago, detective Sean Ortiz, is working the Shaw case, convinced that this time the perpetrator will be caught with her help. Or could the Olivia’s kidnapper be Laine herself? Because Olivia Shaw is Laine’s daughter, conceived in rape, and taken away from her at birth. Trusting no one, Laine takes it upon herself to find Olivia and her search brings up demons in her past she had long sought to exorcise.

Sometimes the characters Laine and Sean seemed to lack authenticity–their responses and reactions to situations fell short of how I’d expect individuals to act. It got so that whenever Laine swallowed yet another pill or drank herself into a stupor again, I found myself more bored than concerned. But Girl Last Seen is a story of recovery (in more ways than one) and redemption, and in that sense, it’s a worthwhile read.

 

Girl Waits With Gun: review

Girl Waits With Gun
Amy Stewart
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

girl waits with gunConstance Kopp and her sisters Norma and Fleurette manage the farm just fine, thank you very much. They garden, raise chickens (and pigeons!), and, since their mother died, have successfully rebuffed brother Francis’s pleas to come live with him and his family in town: “You can’t stay on the farm by yourselves. Three girls, all alone out there?” But Francis is no match for their determined independence. Norma tends her flock of carrier pigeons, Fleurette (the youngest by seventeen years) sews with dramatic flair, and Constance holds everything together. To be sure, life is sometimes lonely, and money short, but they’re managing.

And then on an outing into town, one Henry Kaufman crashes into their buggy with his automobile, destroying it–but not the Kopp girls.

Constance naturally sends Mr. Kaufman an invoice for the damages. But Mr. Kaufman, he of Kaufman Silk Dyeing Company, is much too important and much too self-centered to care a fig about a farm buggy. To be honest, Henry Kaufman is nothing if not a bully. Even worse, he might be connected to the Black Hand, an extortion racket that operated at the turn of the century.

But he’s met his match in Constance Kopp.

The real Constance Kopp

Despite the fact that she’s a woman and the year is 1914, Constance sets out to right the wrong that was done to her family. And that’s where the fun begins. With the help of the local sheriff, Constance pursues justice relentlessly–despite bricks through her window, a break in, and threatening letters. And as she works with Sheriff Heath, she comes to realize what so many of us do–she wants more. She needs something to fulfill her beyond the garden and taking care of the house. The sheriff respects what Constance cannot acknowledge: her sharp mind and quick wit.

If this was just a sweet novel about old-time justice and independent women at the turn of the century, the story would be satisfying enough.

But writer Amy Stewart based her book on a true story. Yes, Miss Constance Kopp did indeed exist–and became one of the first female sheriffs in the U.S. You can read more about her and see archival documents on the author’s website.

And you know what’s even better than this fun novel? There’s a second in the Kopps Sisters Series, Lady Cop Makes Trouble. You can be sure it’s on my TBR pile.

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.

Little Pretty Things (review)

Little Pretty Things
Lori Rader-Day
Seventh Street Books

I don’t read mysteries. Never liked ’em. Except when I like them as  here or here  or even here. And of course there’s my beloved Flavia. So maybe I’d better rethink this mystery thing, right?!

Lori Rader-Day’s Pretty Little Things is a pretty straightforward murder mystery from about page 40. Juliet Townsend works a dead end job in a dead end life: she still lives at home with her mother, barely makes enough to make ends meet as a motel housekeeper, and hasn’t had a boyfriend in years. Once a promising high school track star, Juliet found herself running in place at age thirty. She had hoped to go to college on an athletic scholarship–but that was before her best friend and teammate  Madeleine Bell’s crisis kept them from competing in the state finals. Then, only a few weeks later, Maddy is off to college early right after graduation, leaving Juliet in the dust. Bitter, Juliet remains mired in the emotional muck of thatPretty Little Things spring even ten years later.

And then one night Maddy walks into the Mid-Night Inn where Juliet works and rents a room. Over a quick beer, they talk, and still resentful of her losses, Juliet rebuffs Maddy’s attempts to reconnect. Juliet finds that Maddy is everything she is not. A chic big-city gal. Confident. Put together.

Until she’s found dead. And then Juliet has to figure out whether or not Maddy was who she appeared to be.

Because of their tense meeting that night and their rivalry in high school, Juliet is immediately a suspect. And like so many good mysteries, the suspect turns detective to clear her name. In the process of finding that truth, Juliet also discovers that her understanding of her world as a sixteen-year-old was far from clear–she had to relearn her friend’s story as well as her own.

I do love writers who set their stories in the Midwest and that may have been part of my love for Little Pretty Things. The novel takes place in the fictional Midway, just outside of Indianapolis and the characters are true to their Midwestern roots. (Juliet’s mom makes her macaroni and cheese when she gets home from work; porch lights flicker on at dusk; nearly everyone lives in the shadow of their highschool self.) But the Midwest is not all church potlucks and homecoming parades–Rader-Day brings the dark, unseemly side of small town life and high school athletics to light.

When I do read that occasional mystery, I find myself guessing nearly every other chapter–he’s the murderer. Or maybe it’s her. Or him. And my measure of a good whodunit? When my guesses are nearly always wrong … but juuuuust close enough for me to hear the author whisper gotcha! as I turn to that last chapter.