Still Life, Louise Penny

A few weeks ago, I had lunch with a couple of friends from a yoga class I used to have time to take before I had to balance the work from home/mom lifestyle (if you’re  a parent and manage to do this and still go to such classes, bless you – I wish I were that person, but alas, I am not). The three of us are from different generations, and I never get tired of seeing them because as much as I love the company of my peers, it’s a precious gift to have long talks with women who have have experienced so much of the world, such passionate careers, and such diverse relationships. I always leave laughing, buoyed up by their stories and by the long list of book recommendations we’ve shared with each other.

811sqbhadjlFor the past six months, both of them have desperately been trying to get me into the Chief Inspector Gamache series by Penny, and while they’ve been on my list, they’d never quite made it to the top. Unfortunately, a new one had been released just before our last get together, which meant they did a lot of excited whispering back and forth (kindly keeping me from being spoiled, while simultaneously piquing my curiosity to an annoying extent). I finally gave in and ordered the first one for my kindle while waiting for our food to arrive.

I read Still Life while fighting off a few bad nights of insomnia that culminated in a stomach bug, and I can definitively say that Canadian cozy mysteries are the best medicine. Obviously, I’m already deep into the second volume, but I think the most delightful part of the whole experience was the email chain that resulted from telling my friends that I had finally caved.

From K: And they just keep getting better and better! Enjoy! So glad you started them. But don’t be like T and read them out of order. That’s just too upsetting.
From T: Happy you are hooked. Remember it is (still, I believe) a free country – read books in any order you feel like reading them.
Honestly, I was sick as a dog when I read their replies, and I still laughed. In order (like the obsessive compulsive I am) or out, Louise Penny has all three of us completely hooked. Even fighting over them is fun, possibly because it’s been a long time since I’ve gotten to share a great series with people I can also share a meal with, and possibly because a little Canadian escapism is just the ticket for getting through this crazy winter…
Peter was willing the water to boil so he could make tea and then all this would go away. Maybe, said his brain and his upbringing, if you make enough tea and small talk, time reverses and all bad things are undone. But he’d lived too long with Clara to be able to hide in denial. Jane was dead. Killed. And he needed to comfort Clara and somehow make it all right. And he didn’t know how. Rummaging through the cupboard like a wartime surgeon frantically searching for the right bandage, Peter swept aside Yogi Tea and Harmony Herbal Blend, though he hesitated for a second over chamomile. But no. Stay focused, he admonished himself. He knew it was there, that opiate of the Anglos. And his hand clutched the box just as the kettle whistled. Violent death demanded Earl Grey. (pg 46)

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d: A Flavia de Luce novel, Alan Bradley

It’s rare to read a series – even a beloved one – and have the eighth book be one’s favorite. I find that if I’m reading a series with three to seven books, it’s typically the third or fourth that I like best; however, any author writing in the same world for much longer than that starts to blur the details.

51ldoulkawlThis isn’t to say I don’t love a long series. I do. They may be my favorite type of books because I get to come back again and again to beloved characters. I wouldn’t trade a good series for anything, and yet I accept that they get fuzzy. The individual volumes are usually less important to me than the overarching storylines, and I’m often so excited for a new book that I devour it in hours or days and then despair that it will be years until the next one appears.

This has certainly been true for some of the Flavia de Luce novels. I remember several of the earliest ones quite clearly, and then it gets vague, and then the seventh book takes our young sleuth from England to Canada (which helps tremendously in separating its storyline from others), and then this newest volume, which I expected to relish and then lump in with the others, stood out above the rest.

When I was young, I read all the Nancy Drew novels our library had, and I remember enjoying them, although even then, I found the repetition of certain facts about Nancy to be a tiresome waste of pages. Nevertheless, there was a shortage of books about girls solving crimes, and I read anything on the subject I could find. Oh, to have had Flavia to read back then. If anything, she’s more like Harriet the Spy then Nancy Drew, although she has the composure of a woman much older than twelve.

She’s not well liked, and she’s constantly getting into trouble for nosing in where she doesn’t belong. Her family life is awful, and she relies on her keen intelligence to find a place for herself in a bitterly cold and lonely world. Unraveling murders is cathartic for Flavia. She is a scientist with a burning desire to break down the facts to their logical conclusion, and after reading eight books and one short story, I haven’t tired of watching her do it.

My heart breaks for her though. She is funny and bright and although she doesn’t admit it even to herself, she obviously hopes that the people she admires will see her for who she truly is if she continues her work. For all of her bravery and keen observations though, she is only twelve – eleven when she solved her first murder –  those years pre-puberty are lonely under the best of circumstances, and hers are not the best.

In this book especially, I couldn’t help but see the neglect, the coping mechanisms she’s had to forge and rely on increasingly throughout the series. Flavia at her core is absolute steel, and it’s both fascinating and heartbreaking to watch the naivete get stripped away as she is forced to grow up. One might think witnessing the carnage of multiple murders would be the most disturbing thing for a child’s psyche, but for this girl, the science behind death is the carrot to a life that is otherwise all stick.

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust, Alan Bradley

My brother and I don’t, in general, have overlapping taste in novels. He’s five years older, and until the last year or so, I could only name a handful of books we’ve read as adults that have overlapped. By chance though, we share a common love for Flavia de Luce – that brilliant, morbid eleven year old Brit who solves suspicious deaths with her extensive knowledge of chemistry – and it was through him that I was tipped off about a new title being released. This particular novel, in which Flavia has been shipped off to a Canadian boarding school, ended up being a particularly timely read for me given that last week my own child started in part-time care. It’s his first time away from me for any lengthy period, and although the distance between us is three miles and not the three thousand that Flavia experiences, it tugged on my heart to read about this tough girl’s homesickness.

51byag2zqwl-_sy344_bo1204203200_In previous volumes, Flavia is shown with hardly a weakness (beyond the impetuousness of youth and a propensity to get into trouble, which unsurprisingly accompanies a healthy curiosity for things that shouldn’t concern her). In this book though, she seems much more vulnerable, much more the child she is, wishing often to be home and surrounded by familiar faces, even the sisters she claims to hate. Occasionally, when a writer plucks his protagonist out of her environs and drops her into a new place, such emotions are touched upon briefly but never revisited. Bradley, however, allows the reader to stew, coming back to Flavia’s struggle to adjust again and again.

I found myself getting distracted considering the differences between parent and child. Children, even brilliant ones like Flavia, are at the whim of parents and guardians. They are left in the dark for a variety of reasons and have to cope constantly. It’s terrifically difficult to be a kid for that very reason – the rug may be pulled out at any time, and it’s necessary to adjust. Even as an adult, before I became a parent, I associated very strongly with the many injustices of childhood that stem from ignorance (forced or otherwise).

It wasn’t until I had to care for my own son that I realized how painful it could be to make decisions for another person. I know he benefits greatly from spending twenty hours a week with a wonderful caregiver and other children, but I also know that at ten months, he may wonder at times where I am and feel abandoned because cognitively he hasn’t grasped all the necessary factors that have led to him being there and not here.

I also know that while it’s important for me to work, it’s painful to be separated from my child. I sometimes cry when I get to the car knowing that this small step back, this first taste of his independence is one of many I’ll take if I’m lucky. And it’s tough. As hard as it is to be a child, it’s equally difficult to be the parent and arbiter. Bradley’s perspective on Flavia’s situation reminded me of that. It made me wonder why her father made the choices he did, what information he had that she didn’t that would lead him to send his youngest across a vast ocean. And as I read about her struggle to hold it together in a strange new land, I wondered how many times a day his heart broke thinking of her there.

Even the last few minutes alone had been shocking. I had broken at least three of the Ten Commandments— the “Thou shalt nots” of British girlhood: I had cried, I had allowed alcohol to pass my lips, and I had fainted.

I examined my blurry image in the hanging glass. The face that stared dimly— but defiantly— back at me was a hodgepodge of de Luce: a grab bag of Father’s features, Aunt Felicity’s, Feely’s, Daffy’s— but above all, Harriet’s. In the harsh glare of the flickering overhead lightbulb, it reminded me— but only for a moment— of one of those topsy-turvy paintings by Picasso we had cocked our heads at in the Tate Gallery: all pale skin and a kaleidoscope mug. The recollection of it made me grin, and the moment passed.

I thought of the faded, flyblown wartime posters that still hung in Miss Cool’s confectionery in the high street of Bishop’s Lacey: “Get a Grip,” “Chin Up,” and “Best Foot Forward.”

I took a deep breath, squared my shoulders, and gave myself a smart regulation salute in the mirror.

How proud Father would be of me at this moment, I thought. “Soldier on, Flavia,” I told myself in his absence. “Soldier on, de Luce, F. S.” (p 82-83)

 

Greenglass House, Kate Milford

Is there anything better than a warm vacation in the dark of winter? Yes – a warm vacation in the dark of winter with a really excellent book (obviously.) But don’t worry, I’m not going to brag about taking a holiday. Even when I know I have one coming, or just got back, I loathe reading about someone else’s trip while I’m forced to convince myself to venture out into the rain or snow. I think it’s human nature – no matter how kind a person may be – to loathe the good fortune of others when it comes to time off. Or maybe it’s just that I’m a particularly awful person, but now that I’m home, I plan to comfort myself with the knowledge that none of us really want to hear about (or, God forbid, see pictures) of someone else’s week away. I will spare you that, and instead focus on the kind of pleasure we can all enjoy – the sweet satisfaction that comes from reading a fantastic book.

I bought Greenglass House on a whim as a Christmas gift for my mother. It was advertised on Amazon (undoubtedly because I have a book buying problem, and that site knows exactly how weak I am), and after reading the first few pages, I was hooked and ordered it immediately. When I got to my parents’ house in December and unwrapped it, I was delighted by the beautiful cover and the feel of the particular paper used. I’m not a publishing expert, but there’s something about the paper stock in hardcover middle grade novels that immediately brings me a deep sense of joy. It was physically painful to have to wrap it up again and give it away on Christmas morning, regardless of the fact that my parents long ago taught me that the gifts I loved dearly were the ones most worth giving away.

Thankfully, my mother is the best sort of person to give books to because she immediately senses the giver’s reluctance and offers to share it back again (after she’s read it, of course – she’s not a saint). She sent it back to me a week before my vacation, promising me that I would love it, and of course, she was right.

There was something about this book that I found…magical. Every time I picked it up, I was swept back into the very sweetest parts of my childhood – those hours spent buried in books, as well as those lost in exploration of the ramshackle thirteen room parsonage we lived in for many years. Milton managed to perfectly capture that thrill of discovery, the wonder of childhood that transforms the ordinary into the exceptional. As I was reading, I ached to go back in time, to climb into deep, dirty closets and find, not a project to organize, but the key to another world.

When I was young, of course, there were plenty of days when I was bored, anxious to grow up and go off on real adventures, and fortunately, as an adult, I’ve tried not to let that younger self down. What I didn’t understand then though, was what those grown up adventures would cost me. Riding on the coattails of joy at discovering new places, there came an understanding of reality that forced shut some of the doors of my imagination forever. Milton’s novel pried open some of those doors again, if only an inch, to remind me of the great and glittering adventures that still exist at home when I bother to look with fresh eyes.

 

For more about Kate Milton, head over here.

Too Many Crooks Spoil the Broth, Tamar Myers

While I was visiting my family earlier this month, my mother and I sat down to talk through some of our notes about the mystery we’re starting to write. One of the biggest challenges we’re facing is creating a world for our characters that’s richly developed without being cliché, as well as filled with a fleshed-out supporting cast with the potential for romance, friendship, petty grudges, and of course, murder. It’s not that we have a shortage of ideas – not at all. The problem is that we’ve both read so many cozy mystery novels over the (ahem) decades, we’re afraid of covering over-farmed territory.

In general, when I look at an author’s bio after reading a book or series with a well-drawn community, it turns out that person lives (or lived) in a place very similar to the one in their story. This makes perfect sense. I’m always more comfortable writing about someplace I’ve spent a lot of time, and the details ring truer when you aren’t fabricating them, or trying to write them based on satellite views from Google Maps. (Not that I’m disparaging that method – I’ve done it many times myself – but isn’t it tougher to write when there’s constant breaks for research? It is for me.)

The challenge for us, as a writing team, is that I feel that the town where both of us lived for many years is a less interesting location than some of the places we’ve lived separately. Unfortunately, if we want to write about one of those cities instead, one or the other of us will be at a huge disadvantage. It’s a conundrum. It’s proving to be a roadblock for other elements of the story, which is of course also frustrating.

I suspect that’s why I found the setting for Crooks to be so delightful. It takes place in a bed and breakfast in an Amish and Mennonite community in Pennsylvania, and by choosing such a location, Myers has given herself the perfect constraints to work within. Hernia is a small community, and an old one, so families and neighbors are deeply intertwined (for better or worse). It’s also a town where religion and culture are braided together, and both have to come up against the modern world on a daily basis, in no small part due to the fact that protagonist Magdalena Yoder invites that world into her home in order to make a living.

When I went to Myers’ website, I was fascinated to see that she also has a series that takes place in the Congo. I’m sure this is possible primarily because she spent her first sixteen years living there, and I have to admit to being jealous of such an incredible (albeit dangerous) experience. Could I write a book about the Congo? Sure, I suppose so. Maybe with about twenty books open at a time (not to mention an infinite number of tabs on my computer!), years of detailed research, and maybe a trip to see it for myself, I could consider an attempt. But even then, it wouldn’t come close to the perspective of a person who has lived there for many years and taken that cultural experience into her soul.

The reason I’m so obsessed with this part of my own novel is that I believe setting and community are what set this particular genre apart from other mysteries. Sure, plot is important. Dramatic tension is necessary. Unexpected twists and a healthy sense of humor (especially about murder and incompetent police work) are appreciated. At the end of the day though, fans of the cozy mystery come for the people, and for a seat at the table in a well-drawn world.

 

For more about Tamar Myers, go here.

Murder is Binding, Lorna Barrett

I have been on a mystery binge the last few weeks. It’s part of my transition into summer reading. I’m all about paperbacks I can take to the beach or lake; they can get sandy and wet without doing much real damage, and they can be left on a towel without fear of someone stealing them (the kindle is great for many things, but it doesn’t enjoy the elements or prove to be quite as discouraging to thieves).

Also, after months of keeping up the same work routine, these months of summer, while not necessarily vacation, provide an illusion of change. The days are longer. The drinks and barbecues and camp outs with friends are more plentiful, and in general, there’s a relaxing of the spirit. My reading habits tend to follow with a certain pleasant softening. I gravitate toward reading material that engages a playfulness rather than  studious or reflective part of my brain.

As a bonus, because I’m working on my own mystery novel, technically, I can call books like this research. Stretching it? Yes. A little. Maybe. But I don’t care. A good mystery is a gift, and I refuse to turn my nose up at the chance to read one. Barrett’s novel is even set near the town in New Hampshire where I grew up, so reading it felt like taking a mini-holiday back to the east coast (complete with a little family drama!). I was a little disappointed that the “binding” in question referred to book bindings and not quilting, but once I got over that, I was tickled by the idea of a town that tries to reestablish its downtrodden economy by inviting niche book shops to take over. I would happily live in such a town, and I suspect I am not alone.

Honestly, the premise alone was captivating to me. I loved imagining such a place – bookstores as far as the eye could see, and for every proclivity! Barrett even included a layer of realistic tension between the shop owners and the townies. Having lived for so many years in a small town kept alive by tourism dollars, I’m familiar with its double-edged sword. It can be difficult to live someplace constantly overrun with enthusiastic strangers. They walk too slowly, they seem to speak decibels louder than necessary, and they grab all the parking…but they’re also necessary. And sometimes even adorable in that exuberant, remember what it feels like to be on a holiday sort of way.

Barrett manages to capture that dichotomy here while exploring the position of an outsider like her protagonist, Tricia. Even after months of living in this town, she’s still very much on the fringes, yet when her sister comes to visit, she manages to insinuate herself with the locals in no time. It’s this push and pull at the heart of the book that drew me in, the reminder of what it felt like to live for eight years in a town where I never quite fell into step with the community, blended with the sort of dark mystery that exists in the secret heart of every town.

 

For more about Lorna Barrett, go here.

Midnight Crossroad, Charlaine Harris

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you already know about my love of all things Harris. I’ve read every series she’s written as fast as she could write them, and when each of them ended, I experienced the kind of sadness unique to multi-book story arcs. (There’s a different sadness that comes with reading a great standalone book, or a trilogy – it’s not a question of greater or lesser – it’s just different.)

Since I was a child, I’ve been drawn to books with seemingly unending adventures though (Nancy Drew, The Boxcar Children, even back to the Berenstain Bears). Something inside of me felt this overwhelming joy at the idea of sinking down into a book with characters I knew and loved well. A friend once said it was just like me to extend my introversion to having a hard time meeting new fictional characters, and I think she was right. When it comes to novels especially, I am most drawn to both characters and authors I already know and love. That being so, this past May was a banner month. I got the latest book in the Dresden Files and the first book in a new series by Harris.

Now, first books are obviously not as exciting as sequels, at least for me (I suspect Harris was ready to start writing new characters with thirteen Sookie Stackhouse novels under her belt), but the transition was eased by the inclusion of a minor character from her Shakespeare series. I have to admit, when I realized who he was (some time before the connection was explicitly made), I mentally made the switch from “well, I suppose I can learn to love this new series” to “ooh continuity is the best – more please!”

I think what had also made me hesitate before that point was that Harris has decided to write at least this first book from the point of view of multiple characters. While that’s not uncommon, it is a different approach than she’s used in the past, and one of the biggest downsides of it is that it takes a lot longer to get to know those characters and establish trust in them as narrators. Having just finished writing a book where we had ten different characters telling the story, I have been on the receiving end of plenty of opinions about the technique, and it’s clear that I’m not the only person who has mixed feelings about it. I still remember when I started reading George RR Martin’s books over a decade ago; it took me three tries to get into A Game of Thrones because there were just so many people clamoring to be heard, and I still haven’t gotten around to reading A Dance of Dragons because I’m bitter about how he split the characters up in the fourth and fifth books. (Yes, I do realize it’s ridiculous to hold a grudge when the fifth book has been out for about three years, but I had roughly six years between those two books to really work myself into a snit, and I suspect it will take about that long before I’ve completely let it go. And no, before you ask, I don’t watch the show – his story was devastating enough the first time. No need to relive that pain in high def.)

I like to make one of the characters in any given book the friend I rely on, and it’s much easier to do that in books with only one narrator. The person I love best isn’t always in that primary role, but I know there will be a certain consistency in my interpretation of the characters when I’m not bouncing from one head into another. I don’t know that it bothers me all that much for an author to use multiple povs in most books, but it threw me for a loop this time because I wasn’t expecting it. I had to adjust to Harris’ new style in addition to setting, story, and characters, and I’m not too proud to admit it helped to have one familiar face in the crowd. That being said, I love that she went quite dark at the end of this first volume, and I’m glad as an author she’s generally consistent about getting a book out every year so I have something to look forward to next spring.

 

For more about Charlaine Harris, head over here.