Sunday, January 27, 2013

This changes everything

On the recommendation of a friend, I read The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, and completely fell in love with the precocious 11-year-old poison-obsessed detective heroine. Though the protagonist is a tween, the book is not for young adults.

It's HILARIOUS. Flavia de Luce, the narrator, lives in dire financial times on her family's ancient estate with her philatelist father and two older sisters. To escape her siblings' taunting and the absence of the mother she never knew, Flavia spends much of her time in her personal chemistry laboratory sating her intellectual curiosity or plotting revenge. When a murder occurs on her family's property, she is morbidly fascinated by it, and pedals off on her bicycle across the English countryside to elude the police and solve the case on her own.

The book's brillance stems from Flavia's isolating, in-between age: she's too old to be babysat but too young still to have her input taken seriously by grown-ups. With snide potshots at her sisters and acerbic observations about the adults around her, she's an incredibly delightful heroine.

On the complete opposite end of the spectrum is the sequel to The Girl is Murder, a noir-lite book for young adults. I didn't exactly love Book 1, but The Girl is Trouble is slightly better (if vastly more disturbing in content).

For starters, it wraps up the huge loose end of teen detective Iris' mother's death. While the reader (and Iris) have long thought she committed suicide, Trouble  brings the sinister truth to light in a way that wraps up most of the other loose ends from the first book. Whereas bobby soxers and high school cliques dominated the story in Murder, infiltration of the American Bund becomes the center of Trouble's gruesome mystery.

I think the titles for the two books should be swapped to better reflect their content.

But really, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie knocks any book with a young protagonist detective out of the ballpark.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Some relish of the saltiness of time

After a few of Sharon Creech's books for young adults that weren't exactly my cup of tea, I finally read two back-to-back that were!

Bloomability is the story of a girl who never had a "real" home due to her parents' nomadic life. Dinnie, the main character, grows up poor;  after her sister becomes a teenage mother and her brother winds up in jail, her aunt and uncle whisk her off for a year at a boarding school in Switzerland. (Parent Trap flashbacks, anyone?) It's a cute tale about studying abroad, making new friends, dealing with homesickness, and fitting personal experiences into a larger global framework.  The end of the book is unresolved: Dinnie returns to America for the summer, and she hasn't decided yet if she'll stay or not.  Though the book is really about tweenhood and identity, I couldn't help but see it through the lens of educational opportunity: DUH, she should return to Switzerland!

There's also an avalanche scene in the book, which 1) reminded me of this incredibly written but scary NYT piece on the avalanche at nearby Stevens Pass last year; and 2) started to freak me out about avalanches while I'm out snowshoeing.

Chasing Redbird was a bittersweet story about another tween, the middle child of a rather large family. She spends a summer clearing an old trail behind her family's property in the Appalachians. By re-building the trail, she comes to terms with several deaths in her family.

The thing I do like about Creech's protagonists is that they don't come from "perfect" homes; they are generally from struggling or non-traditional families or rural areas, and there is usually some event (birth or death or illness or separation) that provides the catalyst for the angst and apprehensions of her young characters. Though her stories must be wonderful for young readers who can relate to their growing-up themes, her characters are sometimes wiser than many real-life adults who have yet to encounter hardships.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Winged Cupid painted blind

I did, in fact, time my reading pile perfectly so that I would be reading The Twelve Clues of Christmas on Christmas Day. The latest in Rhys Bowen's gleefully delightful Royal Spyness mystery series, it did not disappoint. It took the romanticized notion of a "classic" and "traditional" English country Christmas to a different level.  But one of the best plot developments for Lady Georgiana fans is that our heroine can finally stop worrying about her dashing Irish suitor; (SPOILER ALERT!) they finally get engaged in this cheerful holiday book. The reader no longer feels strung along after 6 books...

... unlike Victoria Thompson's Gaslight mystery series, where our Knickerbocker-turned-midwife and her Irish police captain are still doing the "will-we-or-won't-we" dance after 12 --12!-- books.

In Murder on Bank Street, Sarah's husband's cold case murder is finally solved. (So at least that's one loose end wrapped up.) However, with the two children our heroine has adopted comes the introduction of more mysteries about characters' pasts.  In Murder on Waverly Place, one of those pasts comes to light during a seance. (Because what mystery series taking place in the late 19th or early 20th centuries is complete without exposing a seance as fraudulent while solving a murder? Rhys Bowen herself did it with the Molly Murphy series.)

But the most fascinating Gaslight book in a long time is Murder on Lexington Avenue, which addresses the different approaches to education for the deaf: sign language versus lip reading. The same issues and arguments for and against both sides still exist: create and build up a supportive deaf community around a shared (signed) language, or assimilate into the hearing world by learning to "hear" spoken words differently? As a deaf college friend of mine has taught me, the development of the cochlear implant has also added another layer to this debate. At any rate, Thompson created a great mystery story that revolves around the controversy.

In related news, Alexander Graham Bell supported the eugenics movement and hated immigrants and sign langauge.  Even during flights of escapism through fiction, it's never really possible to truly free fall.