Saturday, May 30, 2009

Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

When the dead body of a stranger lies in the garden of an disheveled ancient family home, what's an eleven year old girl with a passion for chemistry (and a unnatural knowledge of poisons) supposed to do? Solve the mystery of course. Welcome to Flavia's world.

Flavia de Luce is 11 going on 40. She's the neglected youngest daughter of an absent minded stamp collector in Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley. With her trusty bicycle Gladys, Flavia is determined to solve this crime. When her father is charged with the murder, it becomes even more important. She doesn't realize that the investigation will lead her to finding out more about her father's past.

Bradley does an excellent job showing us an eccentric dysfunctional family and manages to make it seem "normal" to Flavia. And when her older sisters lock her up in a closet or tell her she was really brought home as a baby from a store, she does what any normal youngest child does. She takes revenge. She just does it a little differently, with poison ivy in a lipstick.

I'm excited that this is to be a series. There are too many de Luce family secrets that have been hinted at and need to be uncovered. As a reader, I am looking forward to seeing Flavia and her sisters growing up in this odd environment. Perfect for traditional mystery fans.

Friday, May 22, 2009


The Family Man by Elinor Lipman (2009)

Here is a great beach read: a light, and bright, and sparkling comedy of manners with little profanity and no graphic sex. Here is the story: A buttoned-up, divorced gay man meets up with his former step-daughter Thalia, an aspiring actress, and falls in love, in a familial way. To further the plot, he meets the true love of his life (Todd) and reconnects with his wacky ex, Thalia's mother Denise. The story is mainly about Thalia's adventures as the faux fiance of a D-list actor who is trying to improve his image. Denise's ongoing feud with her daughter and step-sons and Todd's belated coming out to his mother round out the action.

Lipman writes chick lit in the same way as Jane Austen. Like Austen, Lipman is gently satirical and sometimes subtly cruel in her examination of contemporary customs and mores. Her novels usually have serious intent hidden under frothy skirts. The underlying theme of this novel is prostitution. This theme is multiply manifest running from Denise's penchant for marital infidelity with rich men, through Thalia's slutty hook-ups and her willingness to sell herself for a mention on Page Six, to the way Todd uses his personality to sell housewares at retail. Every one is for sale in one way or another. And like Austen's as well, this story has the kind of ending where everything finds its proper place and order reigns.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Searching for Rumpelstiltskin

As a child library patron, and a good reader, I found my sweet spot when I saw the colorful Andrew Lang fairy book series on the shelves. Lang, who died in 1912, was a serious author and literary scholar. He collected hundreds of folk and fairy tales from around the world and published them in a series of 10 or so well-written and well-edited books named after colors: The Green Fairy Book, The Violet Fairy Book, etc.

Since discovering Lang, and later Anderson and the Grimm Brothers, I have loved fairy tales and to this day, as an aged woman, I love them still. I especially relish re-told fairy tales where the imagination of a present day fantasy writer intersects with the magic of a well-worn tale to produce a story that resonates with the past and speaks to us in the present.

Rumpelstiltskin is a story that always stuck with me. It's creepy, scary, and features the heroine's breath-stealing last minute escape from doom. Also, as an avid knitter I have lately been fascinated by the spinning, yarny aspects of the story as well.

In The Crimson Thread, published in 2008, Suzanne Weyn delivers a non-magical version of the story, but retains a flavor of magic in the character of Ray Stalls (Rumpelstiltskin) and his prodigious tailoring ability. Set in New York city at the end of the 19th century, the story centers on Bertie Miller, a young Irish immigrant to the United States and a talented dressmaker. She finds her way into the rag trade on her own ability, but requires the secret help of Ray Stalls to keep her position as chief designer and dressmaker for a fashion house that sets the trends of the day. Married to the boss's son, Bertie also needs Ray's protection when her marriage turns sour. While the story is naturalistic, I can't figure out how Ray turned one yard of crimson thread into eye-dazzling embellishments that made ladies of fashion mad for the dresses he sewed. A bit of magic after all.

In A Curse as Dark as Gold, also published in 2008 by Elizabeth C. Bunce, dark magic pervades the textile mill currently run by nineteen year old Charlotte Miller who inherits the factory from her late father. Brave, hard-driving Charlotte will forfeit her beloved baby son to a spinning ghoul unless she can lift the curse that has doomed her family's mill for many years. This is a strongly suspenseful and well-researched story that provides a glimpse into the workings of a late 18th century textile mill. Bunce, a first time novelist, won the 2009 William C. Morris YA Debut award for this book.

In Spinners, 2001, Donna Jo Napoli and Richard Tchen create a stark retelling of Rumpelstiltskin in the tragic story of a spindler who cripples himself spinning straw into gold for the woman he loves. Following the outline of the original story, the girl marries a rich man, but the child she bears is the spindler's daughter. The subsequent life of the crippled spindler is so loveless and lonely that he later tries to find a child that will belong to him and fill the void in his life. This story is non-magical and grimmer than Grimm, but it is also a moving tale of loneliness and valor

The strangest, most magical, and best of these stories is The Witch's Boy by Michael Gruber, published in 2006. Like Spinners, it is told from the viewpoint of Rumpelstiltskin, creating sympathy for the man who is blighted in all ways. In The Witch's Boy a goblin-foundling called Lump is raised by a loving witch. Raised in Faeryland, when he later encounters the cruelty of the human world his heart turns to stone and he seeks a child to make him human. Along the way, Lump meets characters from many familiar legends and tales. My favorite character is Falance, the witch's familiar who is sometimes a graceful magician and wily card shark and sometimes a cat.

All of the books discussed above can be found in the Young Adult section of the library except for The Witch's Boy which is in Youth Services. All are eminently suited for adults.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Perfect Poison

The Arcane Society continues in Amanda Quick's The Perfect Poison. Quick (who is Jayne Ann Krentz) has written her sixth book in the series - the third historical one. And much to this reader's joy - she keeps the excitement in the series. (Can I tell you how many times books within a long series, have clunkers through out because the author can not keep up the quality?) Finally Quick brings us Colin's story. Colin Jones' talent is a difficult one - he has a talent for strategy and making connections. He sees the patterns in his head and connects the dots so that the Society and his new project, Jones and Company can figure out what is going on in the battle for the founder's formula. He doesn't have Miss Lucinda Bromley in his pattern however.

Lucinda has a talent for botany - more specifically figuring out what botanic ingredients have been combined to create potions for good or for evil. She's been helping a member of Scotland Yard, with various cases that involve poisons and she discovers that one of the ingredients she has figured out was stolen from her greenhouse. She decides to enlist Jones and Company to find out who the thief is and where is her plant. She also has a bit of a reputation - she is rumored to have poisoned her fiance, and wants things handled as quickly as possible. When they meet - they end up surprising each other - with their talents and intelligence. And when Colin figures out her thief is connected to his quest - the hunt is on.

Quick once again gives us great characters, with pithy dialogue and a roller coaster ride of a plot. And she brings us an excellent subplot of an Arcane Society matchmaker in action. (It would be fun to have her again in another book!) Along the way she manages to deftly fill in more details about the Jones family, the Arcane Society, their history, and their members' talents. I can hardly wait for the next installment! A very good read!

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Murder on the Eiffel Tower

Murder On the Eiffel Tower by Claude Izner is a wonderful book that combines history and mystery to produce a fun work of fiction. We are immersed from the beginning in the 1889 World Exposition in Paris. The entire city is focused on the new Eiffel Tower and the exposition. The joy and the excitement of going up to the viewing platforms has visitors in a frenzy. And when someone is murdered on the platform, the case makes front page news. But who would murder a maiden aunt taking her niece and nephews on an outing? Victor Legris, a young bookseller, is on the platform with newspaper friends when this happens and wants to find the culprit. And when more people start dying after visiting the viewing platforms and the exposition, he is determined to solve the case - even as his friends are turning into suspects.

The author (really a pen name for two lady booksellers in modern France) brings to life the Paris of the time, and Victor's occupations as bookseller and book critic. Victor is a compelling character who is trying to be modern but finds he is more conservative than he thinks he is. With a cast of interesting secondary characters, the story allows us a brief glimpse into their world. And we had a wonderful time. A very fun read.