Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Co-review: The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag

Caren and I both loved Alan Bradley's book The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and decided, since we're on a sequels kick for co-reviews these days, that we would do one for his next book.  The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag is another tale of mystery and murder with Flavia de Luce, chemist, poisons expert, detective, adventurer, clever liar, and not-quite-eleven-year-old.  This time she is investigating the mysterious murder of Rupert Porson, a puppeteer who arrived in Bishop's Lacey--the town in England where the story takes place--under unknown circumstances.  Porson is a famous man with his own television show on the BBC, and his puppets are beloved by children and adults the country over.  When his van breaks down in Bishop's Lacey near the parsonage, Flavia starts to help him out of curiosity.  As she noses out some mystery having to do with Porson's assistant, Nialla, Flavia can't resist snooping some more.

Flavia discovers that Porson is not a stranger to her small town and that somehow he is tied up with the mysterious death of Robin Ingleby, a young boy who died five years before.  Flavia also stumbles across a German POW who is working for the Inglebys and his role in events also surface.  In addition to all this, Flavia's Aunt Felicity comes to town to put their disastrous financial affairs in order and to chastise Flavia's father.  There's a lot going on, I know.  There's so many more new characters in this book, but we still have the delightful, gossipy Mrs. Mullett, the traumatized and complicated Dogger, and Flavia's fiendish sisters.  Each character is a delight.

With prompting from the vicar, Porson puts on a puppet show for the town.  It's like nothing anyone has ever seen, with obvious skilled craftsmanship.  When Porson drops dead at the finale instead of his giant puppet, Flavia instantly begins her detective work.  With her fascination with death and her precocious ability to ferret out facts, the police department is lucky to have her on the case. 

As always, we don't hold back in these co-reviews.  Since this book is a mystery and the ending a fairly good surprise, I don't recommend reading this if you don't want it ruined for you.  Seriously.  Don't read this.  Go read the first and second books, then come back.

Jenny:  Flavia is one of my new favorite characters.  She's so clever, so funny, so delightfully macabre that I can't get enough.  I wrote down page numbers of sections where I laughed out loud.  The part where she decides to ask Dogger what it means to have an affair?  Oh my gosh, I giggled so hard that my husband had to put down his book to ask me what was so funny.  Flavia is unapologetic about her methods and means.  For example, I loved this sentence so much I wrote it down: "I suppose there must have been times when I hated myself for practicing such deceits, but I could not think of any at the moment.  It was Fate, after all, who thrust me into these things, and Fate would jolly well have to stand the blame."  Oh man, she's a hoot. 

I think I actually liked this book better than the first one.  It was more shocking and funny and engaging.  I remember having to give the first book a second chance after almost returning it to the library, but this one I dove in and finished in a few days.  But that could also be because I knew what good stuff was waiting for me.

Caren: I loved the first book, and enjoyed this one just as much.  Maybe even more because I am a bigger Flavia de Luce fan now.  During the first book, I was so unsure of what to make of her -- she amazed me and creeped me out at the same time -- so I hesitated to fully embrace her and her quirkiness.  But now that I've had some history with her, I felt like I could relax and enjoy her bizarre talents without reserve.

While I was reading, I tried to decide if you had to have read The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie to appreciate this one.  I think it would definitely help, but isn't necessary.  Bradley did a good job of filling in any important information without giving away spoilers from the first book.

Oh, and I loved her conversation with Dogger about what it means to have an affair too!  And she is perfectly satisfied with his explanation that two people having an affair "became the greatest of friends."  Priceless!  Her maturity and intelligence juxtaposed with moments like that which showed her youth and vulnerability made her all the more likeable.

I'm curious how much of the chemistry in the story is accurate.  She's such a MacGyver when it comes to her homemade experiments.  It's awesome!  And I can't help but wonder how much research Bradley does for these novels and whether her exploits are at all realistic.

Jenny:  I bet he does his research, especially if you look at how long his acknowledgments are at the end of the book.  Plus, you gotta know people will write him and say, "Now on page 137, you mentioned these two compounds and they wouldn't really do that, blah blah blah."  The prospect of dealing with that would get me to do my research, anyway. 

I didn't feel any hint of how the mystery would unfold.  Bradley kept me in the dark.  I'm curious if you had any hints as to how it played out.

Flavia is MacGyver!  If MacGyver was a prepubescent girl obsessed with poison, anyway.  I was totally impressed with how she used her wits to save Grace at the end.  But those moments in the book make me think Bradley is trying to make her too clever and fast-thinking, beyond what is believable.  Then he reminds us that she's just a little girl through the torment her older sisters put her through.  Ah, Bradley, you tricky author you.

Caren: I didn't figure out who did it either.  I did suspect it was Rupert at the seaside when Sally mentioned the Punch and Judy show, but I didn't figure out the implications that he and Grace Ingleby had a thing going.  And I sort of had a hard time remembering Rupert was supposed to be such a ladies' man when all we saw of him was being an abusive jerk. I had kind of hoped that it was Cynthia or Mad Meg who killed Rupert because they would have made much better murderers than poor, pathetic Grace.

I really enjoyed learning more about Harriett, especially when Aunt Felicity tells Flavia that she is just like her mother.  I loath Flavia's sisters for how horrible they are to her and I hope that Bradley has some sort of redemption planned for her, because her home life really stinks.

One thing Bradley does really well is setting an eery tone.  The rotting gallows at the abandoned crossroads in the middle of the wood; the puppet with Robin's face; the shrine in the dovecote; they were all wonderfully creepy!

Jenny:  Yes, Bradley does masterfully create a scene.  I often felt like I was right beside Flavia as she raced around on Gladys, her bicycle.  When Flavia went to the old auto shop to retrieve some research, I got shivers when I remembered how she was trapped in there in the first book.  I love an author who can describe a scene so well that I find myself there with the characters.  Makes it so much more fun to read.

When Aunt Felicity tells Flavia that she is just like her mother, I cheered!  Those stinky sisters of hers, aptly nicknamed Feely and Daffy, are probably just jealous that their little sister ended up so much like their mother.  Like you said, I really hope Bradley has something nasty in store for them.  Of course, the rank chocolates at the end was pretty hilarious, though it would have been more funny if Feely had actually eaten some of them. 

Here's a random question: what's up with the butterfly on the cover of the book?  Do you remember anything about butterflies?

Caren: I think it referred to Nialla's butterfly compact that Mad Meg stole, but I was surprised it didn't have any real significance in the story.  I expected it to be a pivotal piece of the puzzle, but it wasn't.  Unless I missed something!

Speaking of the cover, I have to say that Alan Bradley does come up with the most unusual and unforgettable titles.  Kind of a pain to write out, but pretty cool!  And all the references to art, literature, history, and the sciences -- either he's one very well-educated writer or he's good at faking it!

Jenny:  I'm a fan whether or not he's faking it.  This is good stuff, my friend.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The post where I preach about the virtues of graphic novels

I have recently discovered some amazing graphic novels.  First off, let me explain what a graphic novel is for any Red Hot Eyebrows readers who are wondering what it is I'm talking about.  The word graphic is being used in the sense that it is a novel told in pictures, not graphic as in a graphic nature.  It's also a term for comic books, but honestly, the graphic novels I've read don't bear much resemblance to comic books, so having a whole different word makes sense to me.

In the past, I've reviewed some graphic novels without realizing what a big deal they are.  I mean, the term graphic novel didn't exist in my vocabulary until a couple of years ago, so I wouldn't have known that, for instance, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, could be considered one.  It won the Caldecott award recently for the best picture book of the year.  Can you imagine a comic book receiving the same honor?  Not me, but much of Hugo Cabret is told in pictures, which is a defining characteristic of graphic novels and also of comic books.  So what makes them different from each other?  Good question, Jenny.  Thank you, I thought so too.

Comic books and graphic novels share some qualities but differ in other ways.  Graphic novels are longer, are more in a book format than a thinner magazine format, are more accepted by librarians as acceptable literature, and are sometimes based on already familiar stories.  Moms around the world get more warm fuzzies if their child is reading graphic novels versus reading comic books.  Honestly, I'd take a graphic novel over a comic book any day, but that's because the nature of comic books is to never have closure, to continually keep the reader buying new installments.  It's the boy's version of soap operas.  That's a turn off for me.  Graphic novels tell stories that don't require the reader to have read the last 20 years worth of comics.  That's a big appeal for me.

I always pictured comic books as something nerdy adolescent boys perused in dimly lit shops run by men chasing their own adolescence, wearing t-shirts with obscure slogans on them and bemoaning their inability to move out of their parents' houses.  Whew, that was harsh, but forgive me while I eventually get to my point. Comic book collecting is a profitable business and good golly, there are enough movies made out of comic book stories to make Stan Lee a rich man many times over.  Obviously there's a demand.  So what if it's stories based on aliens and superheroes and villains and mutations and whatever?  I happen to like that sort of stuff, but it's a universal fact that parents and teachers have been scorning comic books since the first caveman drew his first flying boy on his cave wall.  "Put that burnt stick down and quick making up those stupid flying caveboy stories!" his mom would cry.  "Why can't you make nice drawings like your brother, with buffalo and fire and real things?"  And thus the first comic book nerd was born.

What's interesting to me is that reluctant readers are known to devour graphic novels, yet there are still parents and teachers who still discourage kids from reading them.  Now, I'm not talking about graphic novels that are not intended for children.  There's plenty of graphic graphic novels out there.  I'm talking about graphic novels, or comic books for that matter, that are written for kids.  I can't believe that there are adults out there that would discourage children from reading.  Who cares if they'd rather read Pride and Prejudice the graphic novel versus the original?  They're reading, for cryin' in the mud!  Hook 'em, reel 'em in and then get them tackling Mark Twain!  

Luckily, I've only encountered really good graphic novels so far.  Shannon and Dean Hale did an excellent job with Rapunzel's Revenge and its sequel Calamity Jack.  The stories were exciting and the voice of the narrators witty, funny and interesting.  Nathan Hale (no relation to Shannon and Dean) did an excellent job with the illustrations and he kept the story constantly moving.  Shannon Hale has proven herself amazing at telling her own version of familiar stories and these books are no exception.  I found myself glued to the pages, absorbed in the story and the visual treat it was to read.  I had these books at my house for over a month, waiting for me to get around to reading them for this blog post.  My kids must have read them a dozen times at least, including my five-year-old who isn't a proficient reader yet.  She was drawn into the stories just from the pictures.  These books are great for the eight and up crowd, due to some scary critters and very slight romantic elements, but you'll know your own kids best.  Tying in the already familiar stories of Rapunzel and Jack and the Beanstalk made these great graphic novels for younger kids and I highly recommend them.  Heck, I recommend them for adult readers.  They're that awesome.

The next graphic novel was something different.  Eric Shanower retold The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as L. Frank Baum wrote it, not like the Hollywood version most people know best.  My kids and I read the original Baum book a few years ago so they already knew what to expect.  Skottie Young's illustrations were way scarier than those of Nathan Hale, so I wish I had taken more time to carefully look it over before my kids got a hold of it.  Regardless, my older kids read the book at least three or four times each before we returned it to the library.  It was suspenseful and exciting.  The storytelling seemed a bit forced to me, but it didn't deter my kids one bit.

If you're already a graphic novel convert then I'm preaching to the choir.  If you've looked down on the genre, I hope I've shown you a different angle or convinced you to give them a try.  I've certainly enjoyed myself with the ones I've found and I hope to add a few more to my list.  I'll try not to skulk about in darkened stores with the other nerds too much in the mean time.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Sarah Prine's story continued

One of my favorite reads last year was Nancy E. Turner's These is My Words, and I recently spent my first few post-partum weeks finishing her Sarah Prine trilogy.  While her first novel spanned a couple of decades and followed young Sarah's journey through adulthood, the next two take place within a relatively brief period of time.

Sarah's Quilt picks up some years after the close of These is My Words.  Widowed Sarah Prine Elliot is fighting to save her ranch in the midst of a devastating drought, fighting her obstinate sons to go back to college and pursue the future she dreams for them, fighting an unknown enemy who is sabotaging her water supply and stealing her cattle, and fighting her own heart as she faces a marriage proposal that confuses her and brings into sharp focus the pain of her loss.  As in her first novel, Turner does an excellent job fleshing out her characters, creating a strong sense of setting, and using a good mix of action and still reflection that moves the story forward in a thought-provoking way.  The diary format is more loose with this novel, which frees Turner up a bit from those retraints while still keeping the narrative voice very strong.  Because of Sarah's age and maturity, her family is a central focus and some of the secondary characters become more important than they were in the previous novel, causing her to share the spotlight a little more.  But she is still just as tough and soft-hearted as ever, and I enjoyed it immensely.

The conclusion of Sarah's story comes in The Star Garden.  Many of the conflicts from Sarah's Quilt continue, and some other interesting subplots are introduced, such as when Sarah attends a term of college.  There is also a new love in Sarah's life, and the developing romance faces some serious obstacles -- both external and internal.  I didn't enjoy this one as much as the other two.  There were some character inconsistencies that bothered me, and the ending was pretty bittersweet.  But, I have to say that the conclusion very much felt like real life -- not necessarily the joyously happy ending you might want, but good enough to work with.  While it wasn't my favorite of the three, it was still very well-written and definitely worth reading.

Taken together, this makes for one of the best series I've ever read, with some unforgettable drama and inspiring characters. I just might have to take a look at what else Nancy E. Turner has written!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Red Pyramid

Not that long ago, Caren was raving about The Lightning Thief and I remembered how much I had enjoyed reading it as well.  I need to finish reading the series, but it's a bit of a project when there's seventy kazillion people on the wait list for it at the library.  Anyway, one day at the library I bumped into my friend Katie and her kids.  I love talking with her because our conversations usually include book swapping ideas and author comparisons.  I love to talk me some book talk.  She grabbed my oldest daughter and marched her over to where there was a copy of the newest Rick Riordan book, The Red Pyramid.  It's the beginning of a new series based on Egyptian myths and looked like a lot of fun.  Sure enough, my daughter devoured it and rushed it to me with the command to read immediately.  I usually do as I'm told, so I gave it a read.

Riordan is tackling Egyptian gods and myths in this new series and instead of our heroes, siblings Carter and Sadie, being descended from gods, like in The Lightning Thief, they are descended from pharaohs.  In ancient times, the gods would inhabit certain people with noble enough blood to accomplish their desires and plans in the world.  The gods inhabit the Duat, sort of a parallel existence.  There's some good guys and bad guys and through an accident involving the Rosetta Stone, both good and bad are on the loose.  Honestly, there was a whole lot to this that I had no idea about, having never studied ancient Egypt.  My whole database of knowledge comes from watching The Mummy.  Sad.  After reading this book, it made me want to check out some books on Egyptian mythology and history to see what else I'm missing out on.  Or I'll just read the series and get a hefty fictional dose.  That sounds good too.

I had an epiphany while reading this book.  The reason why Rick Riordan is making enough money to use it as toilet paper is because he speaks to the most innate desire of any child: to wake up one day and discover that you're actually a superhero/princess/supernatural being.  Who didn't pretend to be able to fly or fight off powerful enemies or rule a nation or be wicked smart when you were a kid?  Riordan's books are about kids who discover that they are so much more than they seem.  Children of gods or descended from royalty who are given tremendous power and abilities is a pretty appealing story.  Wish I had thought of it.

The Red Pyramid was a fun ride and it kept me turning pages.  My only complaint would be that Riordan sure knows how to write a boy, but he could use some lessons on how to write a girl's thoughts, feelings and actions.  I'm sure he wanted Sadie to come across as sassy, but I mostly thought she was a caricature of a sassy girl.  Like he was thinking, "I bet a sassy girl would say this!  Oh yeah!"  Oh well, Carter is a delight to read about so I got over Sadie's issues.  Now that my husband has read it as well, we can return it to the library and let some other kid escape into a world where evil must be vanquished and only preteens are capable of doing it.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Once upon a time, the end

I don't know about you, but sometimes the last thing I feel like doing at the end of the day is to read the same old books out loud to my children.  Sometimes I don't even like my children after 7 p.m. I'm tired, the books they pick are mind-numbing, the day's been too long already and I have no patience to sit and read to them.  That's sad to say because I feel like reading to my children falls into the same category as making sure they brush their teeth.  It's necessary, it's a failure on my part if we don't do it, and it's something you can't really put off very often.  I mean, you can justify skipping a tooth brushing on rare occasions, but several times a week?  That way leads to Cavityville and Gingivitistown.

I thought of that myself.

Anyway, skipping reading time to my kids is just as detrimental to their health as dirty, skeezy teeth.  Despite all the many joyful hours I have spent in the last near-decade reading to my kids, there are times that I don't feel like doing it at all.

I know somebody out there understands this because they wrote about it.  I found a gem of a book on the PBS Booklights blog recently called Once Upon A Time, The End: (asleep in 60 seconds) by Geoffrey Kloske and illustrated by Barry Blitt.  It's a book written from the perspective of an exhausted father who would rather not read stories for hours at bedtime because he's tired and wants his child to go to bed.  He starts to condense the stories, leaving out parts and usually ending each story with "and they went to sleep.  The end."  At first he's just shortening well-known stories and then he's picking only short nursery rhymes and then editing those.  The story of Goldilocks and the Bears starts out with "There were some bears, it doesn't really matter how many.  There was a bunch.  Let's get to the point."  That cracked me up, but what did me in was this nursery rhyme:
Hickory, dickory, dock
The mouse ran up the clcok.
The clock struck eight.
Oh my, it's late!
So the mouse went straight to bed.
You can feel the father's exasperation with trying to get his child to sleep by how he didn't even attempt to make his revised version rhyme.  It gets funnier and the tales get shorter as you near the end of the book.  What was ironic is how long the book is, considering that it's about shortening stories.  It was worth it, though.

This picture book was such fun to read for all of us.  My older kids laughed at the jokes and re-writes while my younger children were in awe at how different the stories are than what they know.  It reminded me of Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes, except more tame and less gruesome and slightly disturbing.  The best part is that I looked forward to story time the last few nights, despite my days being long and crazy.  Maybe it's because there's someone out there that can relate to wanting their kids to just go to bed, for cryin' out loud.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Maisie Dobbs

I just finished a novel for my book group featuring a young woman in England in the early 1900s who is notable for her intelligence and keen powers of observation.  She attends university, grows to adulthood during WWI, and is mentored by a much older gentleman with whom she solves cases and learns to be a private detective.  Sound familiar?  That's what I thought too, but it was not a Mary Russell mystery by Laurie R. King.  With so many similarities in the basic premise, however, it was hard not to draw comparisons.

Maisie Dobbs, by Jacqueline Winspear, begins with the title character striking out on her own as a private detective.  Her first case is a question of marital fidelity.  When a man comes to her with questions about his wife's activities, Maisie is eventually led to a private retreat/compound for WWI veterans whose facial disfigurements have made re-entry into society almost impossible.  As she investigates the compound with its unexplained deaths, she is also forced to face her own grief and loss that she experienced during her years serving as a nurse on the front lines.

Much of the story is told in flashback, giving us a look at how Maisie came from very humble beginnings but was blessed with the patronage of forward-thinking aristocrats, a university education, and tutelage from the sage-like mentor who teaches her about psychological detective work.  We see quite a few scenes from the war, but only the briefest hint of the graphic horrors that came with it.  Part mystery, part romance, part war drama, part period study, part social commentary; in my opinion Winspear tried to take on more issues than Maisie Dobbs was equipped to handle.  The character depth just wasn't there like it is with King's complex Mary Russell. I felt like Winspear shied away from exploring the nitty-gritty things that would have really turned Maisie into a well-rounded character.  Instead, she just gives the reader brief glimpses and expects them to fill in the depth.

Having said that, it was still an interesting story with a poignant conclusion that has lingered with me longer than I would have expected.  Is it enough to continue Maisie's story with the rest of the series?  (Because of course there's a whole series!)  I haven't decided.  I do hate to leave a series unfinished, and there's always a chance that Winspear's writing improves with time and experience.  Maybe my book group will offer an illuminating perspective.