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 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 Matched by Ally Condie

I read Matched by Ally Condie as part of the Dystopia Challenge I’m participating in. I have to admit, I am really enjoying the new YA dystopian trend. Will I get sick of this trend? So far, I don’t see that happening. I think that there are a few reasons I like these novels so much:

  • They provide engaging social commentary about our present world. In The Hunger GamesIncarceron and Matched, the authors take current social realities and exaggerate them to provide criticism. In Hunger Games we see reality TV and plastic surgery taken to extremes. In Incarceron, neo-conservatism leads to a new Victorian age that focuses on appearances and subjugate women. In Matched, utilitarianism leads to a homogenized population.
  • Authors seem less hindered by conventions when creating their fictional worlds. I believe there is so much room for imagination in the Dystopian novel. Maybe some would argue with me on this point.

Back to Matched: First, a brief summary. In this novel, Cassia is Matched, assigned her future marriage partner. To her surprise, she is assigned Xander, her best friend, a rare occurrence because he is someone she knows. She is further confused when another face later appears on the portscreen when she intends to review the Courtship Guidelines. She sees Ky Markham, another boy she knows. Ky is an attractive and quiet guy originally from the Outer Provinces. Cassia starts paying attention to him and finds herself falling in love. Additionally, her realization that the Society can make mistakes leads her to question her place and her future.

I really liked the characters in this novel and look forward to getting to know them better in the sequel. I cared about Cassia’s entire family and found her relationship with her little brother Bram to be very touching. I expect to see more rebellion from Bram in the future.

I did feel that Cassia transitioned a little too quickly from being naive and trusting to insurgent. On the other hand, new ideas and realizations are embraced more readily at that age. The most powerful theme in this novel is that words empower, and I liked that Cassia grew stronger when she learned to write and discover her own language.

Of course, the romance was really engaging. I can’t write too much about it without putting a spoiler alert here. I will comment that there are all these lucky girls in novels lately, with not one but two amazing guys in love with them!

I’m eagerly awaiting the sequel, Crossed. 

On Green Angel and Green Witch

I’ve never read Alice Hoffman before. I picked up her YA novella Green Angel lured by the physical beauty of the book. My library owns a small hardcover copy that is just so pretty.

I was not disappointed by her writing. Hoffman’s prose is lyrical, reminding me at first of Robin Mckinley’s Chalice, later of Franscesca Lia Block with less sex and drugs.

Green Angel is a fairytale about a girl named Green who loses her entire family to a fire that burned the city they visited without her. Green struggles with her grief, isolating herself, renaming herself “Ash,” and tattooing every inch of her skin. Eventually, she begins to heal by healing others, discovering love and her own magic. Green Angel explores the power of naming, the unlikely friendships that form after tragedy, and how grief shapes identity.

I liked the sequel, Green Witch, better than Green Angel, though I would recommend reading both.  Green Witch continues the fairytale. Green lives in a cottage with a magical garden that she wills to prosper. She also gathers stories from the villagers, writing them down on special paper that she creates to suit each story. (To the baker’s story she adds cinammon, to another she adds ashes and salt).

One day, Green discovers the true identity of the Finder, a tinker that provides the villagers with mechanisms. He asks her to find his sister, and Green decides to look for her and the boy that she loved and lost.

For guidance, she seeks out The Enchanted, women labeled witches by the villagers. The novella is divided into sections about each of these witches: The Sky Witch, The Rose Witch and The River Witch. Green records their sad stories, and they reward her with items to help her on her quest.

I think that you have to love fairytales to enjoy Green Angel and Green Witch. I do. I’ve read a few reviews by readers that didn’t care for some of the descriptions. Some people don’t want to read about transforming ink or magical stones.  For a fairytale lover, however, these books were a find.

A quote I’ll keep: “When you are the sole survivor of anything, do you have the right to be alive? Is the future a betrayal of everyone you ever loved and lost, or is it a way to praise them” (pgs. 88-89).

An aside: The dark force in this book is called “The Horde.” I couldn’t help but think of She-ra! I loved that show. Yeah, I’m a product of the 80s.

On Catching Fire and Mockingjay (some spoilers)

I was warned to brace myself for the events in Catching Fire and Mockingjay! I’ll give my spoiler alert here. I don’t think it is possible for me to discuss the last two books in the trilogy without giving something away. There have been so many reviews about this trilogy that I’ve decided to touch on just a few of the things I appreciated:

Suzanne Collins certainly tortures her characters! But, this makes their victories sweeter. I learned something about myself as a writer by reading this trilogy. I have been too soft on my characters. I grow attached to them, and I don’t want to hurt them.  I’m going to try to overcome this sentimentality.

Back to the Hunger Games trilogy—I loved these books for so many reasons.  Katniss is a strong female character, though flawed. I thought that her confusion concerning Peeta and Gale was entirely natural. In a world so frightening, she feels unable to love freely, to separate fear from her other emotions.  She focuses on survival instead of envisioning a quaint “happily ever after.”

Collins’ portrayal of the media’s influence on the war is quite clever.  Both the Capitol and the rebels stage and edit events to sway the public. The war as seen on TV is different than the war that is actually happening.  Both sides expend great efforts on propaganda.  Of course, this happens in our world as well, and this trilogy could remind teens to question instead of believing everything they see.

In Mockingjay, Peeta warns both sides that the population needs to set down its weapons to avoid extinction.  In our world, rapidly becoming over-populated, this might not seem like a present danger. However, I fear that unchecked rage and violence could lead to a reality that resembles the dystopia in the Hunger Games trilogy. Of course, I’ve always been a little paranoid.

I am glad that people like Suzanne Collins are writing books like this for the next generation.