On The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

“I found a dead body in the cucumber patch,’ I told them.

‘How very like you,’ Ophelia said, and went on preening her eyebrows.”

Alan BradleyThe Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, pg 35

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is a perfect example of mistakenly judging a book by its cover. I’ve shelved this book a dozen times at my library, thinking it was one of those culinary and knitting mysteries that have become such a popular sub-genre. Had I realized this mystery featured a morbid 11-year-old girl detective in 1950s England, I would have checked it out years ago.

Flavia de Luce is no preteen Nancy Drew. They both are raised by their fathers, have amazing deductive reasoning, and won’t let a locked door stop their investigations. But the similarities end there. Flavia is more intense and far less hygienic, moral or kind. Her passion is chemistry -in particular experimentation in poisons. She adventures alone, without a Ned, Bess or George for companionship. As a mom, I wanted to reach into the pages, grab her and lecture her on her childish sense of immortality.

This passage captures Flavia:

“I made the Girl Guide three-eared bunny salute with my fingers. I did not tell him that I was technically no longer a member of that organization, and hadn’t been since I was chucked out for manufacturing ferric hydroxide to earn my Domestic Service badge. No one seemed to care that it was the antidote for arsenic poisoning.” (pgs. 306-307)

Flavia is the reason to pick up this novel. I didn’t find the mystery particularly spell-binding, but her character makes up for that. She reminds me of a feral kitten–somehow still cute even after its lashed you with its razor claws. Pick her up😉

On Welcome to Bordertown

      I have a new ambition: to write a Bordertown story. I would love to be published in a Bordertown anthology someday. I’m not sure that’s likely, but who knows?
      Somehow, I missed the older Bordertown stories, so this was my first trip to the fabled city between our world and The Realm (Faerie, home of the Truebloods we call Elves). Now, I want to go back and read the original Bordertown books.
      Bordertown is a wild, ruinous place where our world’s technologies and trends meet magic and glamour. Many of the residents are runaways; quite of a few of them are young and abused. The stories in Welcome to Bordertown, edited by Holly Black and Ellen Kushner, takes place thirteen years (thirteen Bordertown days) after the last Bordetown anthology. The authors explain that the way to Bordertown has been closed for thirteen World years, though the reason is never explained. Therefore, there are two generations of Bordertown teens: today’s youth and those from my generation, the ones who listened to Nirvana and didn’t own cell phones. Several of the stories explore the interactions between the two generations, resulting in works that show how much or little has changed in the last decade and a half. The reader is left with the question: How have our dreams transformed? Clever.
       My favorite stories in the collection were “A Tangle of Green Men” by Charles de Lint, “Elf Blood” by Annette Kurtis Clause, and “Welcome to Bordertown” by Ellen Kushner and Terri Windling. I was actually surprised that I liked “Elf Blood” so much, because it is a vampire story, and honestly I’m a little tired of vampires. The main character, Lizzie, made this story for me. She’s such an interesting mix of fragility and strength, and she reminds me of a friend of mine who shares the same name (though my friend is more beautiful, among other differences). After reading “Elf Blood,” I decided to pick up Klause’s novel Blood and Chocolate which is supposed to be pretty amazing.
      I do wish Neil Gaiman had written a short story instead of a poem for this collection. I just love his writing, and I wanted more.
      I hope to see more Bordertown books in the next few years. I’m guessing today’s teens will love them as much as the past generation.
      So, have you been to Bordertown?

On Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children

One of my tasks at the public library is to “finish processing books” which is a fancy way of saying I take a new book, glue in its pocket, make sure the spine label matches the pocket information, stamp it twice with our library’s name and release it to the public. Of course I also read the jackets of the books that look interesting and check out the ones I like most before they reach the shelves. Good times.

A few months ago, I finished processing Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children. It’s one of the most uniquely designed novels I’ve ever seen.  I wanted to read it immediately, but I put it on the shelves because I didn’t want to hoard it while I was in the midst of another thick novel. A patron checked it out, and I snagged it when it was returned.

The story turned out to be a strange and lovely as the physical design. Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children reminded me of a vintage X-men–a wise woman provides safety and instruction to Peculiars from all over the world, helping them understand and use their special gifts. Miss Peregrine’s orphanage exists in Wales in the 1940s, in the midst of WWII.

It’s difficult to review this novel without giving away its secrets. The novel takes place in the present…sort of.  The narrator Jacob is a rich but socially awkward sixteen-year-old who seeks to learn more about his grandfather, a Jewish orphan who lived at Miss Peregrine’s orphanage as a teen. Jacob learns that he isn’t just suffering delusions; instead, the world is a darker more magical place than he realized.

For me the highlights of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children were:

  • The vintage photographs. They are real, gathered from several collectors. Ransom Riggs fashioned his story around these bizarre photographs.
  • Jacob’s voice. He’s an honest, intelligent but flawed character.
  • The descriptions and metaphors. They are far from cliché.

I wonder if there will be a sequel. I feel like the novel is strong on its own, and that somehow the story might suffer if continued. However, I’d love to read any other story by this author. I hope he is working on something new.

 

 

On Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

“I clung to my rusted dreams during the times of silence. It was at gunpoint that I fell into every hope and allowed myself to wish from the deepest part of my heart”(page 172).

In Between Shades of Gray, Ruta Sepetys tells the story of the Lithuanians who were deported and forced into labor in the 1940s through her narrator Lina, a 15-year-old aspiring artist. The Soviets imprison Lina’s father and take Lina, her younger brother Jonas and her mother from their home in the middle of the night. They join other Lithuanians labeled “thieves and prostitutes” who are actually people who are considered political threats.

Lina and her family struggle to survive beatings, scarce food rations, mental torture and arctic winters. Lina escapes through her art, sketching her experiences and impressions of those who surround her. She must hide the subversive drawings from the vigilant NKVD.

I really liked the character development in this novel.  The characters grow and change, and they aren’t always predictable. Brave characters have moments of weakness; selfish ones show unexpected kindness.

Lina’s mother is definitely the heroine of this story. She’s the best mother, sacrificing everything for her children, encouraging them in the worst of situations. Her compassion towards strangers and even her enemies is inspiring without being nauseating.

 I could barely read the last fifty pages through my tears. So much of this story is heartbreaking, but definitely worth the read. I absolutely loved this novel.

On Clare Dunkle’s House of Dead Maids

 

This book wasn’t quite what I thought it would be. I thought that it was a prequel to Wuthering Heights and it is…sort of. More accurately, House of Dead Maids is a fictional tale about what inspired Emile Bronte to write Wuthering Heights. I guess I was confusing Dunkle’s narrator, the maid Tabby Aykroyd, with Bronte’s character Nelly Dean. I’ve read Wuthering Heights twice, but years ago, and I can’t remember many of the details.

So, Dunkle wrote a story inspired by Wuthering Heights about the inspiration behind Wuthering Heights. I kind of like the circularity of it. Attaching your novel to a classic is an ambitious move on an author’s part. There are bound to be lovers of the classic predisposed to pick apart your novel. I also think that it’s a very straightforward move on the author’s part. Writers are influenced by the books they read; so much writing is inescapably derivative. A retelling, prequel or sequel openly acknowledges that influence.

House of Dead Maids differs from Wuthering Heights by being YA horror instead of a tragic romance. While I don’t think this novel will give me nightmares, the youth of the main characters made the story particularly frightening at moments.

Tabby, the narrator, is sent to Seldom House as a nursemaid to the boy who will become known as Heathcliff. He’s a brat and I wanted to put him in timeout for most of the novel. However, like Tabby I cared for his well being and he had his endearing moments. Tabby is only twelve years old, struggling to be an adult as she and Heathcliff are haunted by the former maids and masters of Seldom House. Seldom House is almost like a character itself instead of a setting, heavily inspired by Wuthering Heights, though more sinister, especially after the mystery is revealed.

House of Dead Maids can stand on its own as a story. At the same time, it did make me want to reread Wuthering Heights. I liked House of Dead Maids better than Dunkle’s By These Ten Bones and less than The Hollow Kingdom Trilogy.

I enjoy the style and brevity of Dunkle’s novels. I don’t see many novels under 300 pages these days. I love to read mammoth 500+ page novels as well, for different reasons. Sometimes I want a story to last for days; other times I like reading a complete tale during a few lunch breaks. In content and page length, Dunkle provides variety from the typical YA novel.

On The City of Thieves by David Benioff

It’s been awhile since I’ve read a novel with a male protagonist. I’m more drawn to books with female heroines. Am I girly? Maybe. I guess I just feel like I can relate to the female protagonists better. That said, some of the best books I’ve read have male protagonists. This is one of them.

 City of Thieves is narrated by Lev Beniov, an awkward 17-year-old Russian living in Lenningrad during World War II.  Lev is arrested for looting the body of a dead Nazi solider. In jail he meets Kolya, a charismatic literature student who has been accused of deserting the Russian army. Lev expects that they will be executed, and is surprised when he and Koyla are given a mission instead. A colonel orders them to find a dozen eggs for his daughter’s wedding cake, an impossible task in a city that is starving.

As Lev and Koyla search for the eggs, they encounter cannibals, prostitutes in distress and cruel Nazis. They bond through a series of adventures and narrow escapes. In many respects, Lev and Koyla are polar opposites. One is pragmatic; the other idealistic. One is a patriot; the other quietly rebellious against his government.  City of Thieves is definitely a bromance; the friendship between Lev and Koyla is both comic and heartwarming.

The book itself is also a bit of a mystery. Is it a novel or a biography or something between the two? In a NY Times book review, Boris Fishman notes: “In a recent interview, Benioff said the novel’s first chapter was pure invention — that all four of his grandparents were born in the United States. But in the bound galleys of the novel he thanked his grandfather for his ‘patience with my late-night phone calls’ about the blockade. The final version of the book doesn’t carry that acknowledgment. What gives?”

Whether is pure fiction or based on reality, City of Thieves relates important truths about a terrifying period in history. I highly recommend it.

Reading Phases: Colonial Fiction

Salem, May 2011

I go through reading phases. A few months ago I couldn’t get enough fantasy fiction. Then, I moved on to dystopian fiction. Most recently, I’m wrapped up in historical fiction, especially fiction about colonial Massachusetts. I’ve read Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks followed by The Widow’s War by Sally Gunning.

Caleb’s Crossing is set in Martha’s Vineyard during the 17th century. The novel is narrated by Bethia Mayfield, a teenage girl who forms a friendship with a Native American boy named Cheeshah-teaumuc, renamed Caleb. His character is based on the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College. Bethia learns her own lessons from her friendship, causing her to reflect on the norms of her society. As usual, Brooks’ prose is lovely and haunting; her plot tragic and compelling.

The Widow’s War takes place a century later in the village of Satucket, Massachusetts. The protagonist, Lyddie Berry, becomes widowed and decides to fight for property rights during a time period when women were financially dependent on men. While I thought Lyddie’s character seemed less authentic than Bethia’s, I enjoyed her strength and perseverance. I plan to read the rest of Gunning’s historical novels.

Next on my list is The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent. I’m impatiently waiting for my interlibrary loan.

I’m interested in colonial Massachusetts because I took a trip to Salem with my two best friends in May. This was my first trip to Salem. Good times. Salem was filled with hokey tourist shops, but the architecture and history were fascinating.

Overall, I think I like historical fiction because it provides an escape from the contemporary world, and I feel like I’m furthering my education. There’s also the “I’m so glad I don’t to go through that” factor. I’d like to live in certain eras for a couple of weeks, but I’m glad I have the freedoms that I do.

So, what reading phase are you in?