Archive for June, 2009

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

By Alan Bradley

The Short Take:

This totally charming murder mystery has a most unusual “detective:” an 11-year-old girl with a passion for chemistry, particularly poisons. How can you resist?


Judging from book binding and the young lead character, I suspect this novel is primarily intended for junior readers. Don’t let that dissuade you. Get it, read it, and then pass it on to a daughter/granddaughter/niece/any young girl. Not only will both you and your recipient be thoroughly entertained, this book may inspire some future scientists — a good thing for sure.

Set in 1950 rural England, Bradley’s mystery is awash with interesting characters. You find yourself wanting to know more about all of them (Good. Bradley is planning sequels). None are more engaging than Flavia de Luce, the bold and brainy youngest daughter of a reclusive philatelist. She is some kid — courageous, inquisitive, and engaged in a highly amusing (and somewhat alarming) feud with her two sisters. They all live in an ancient and crumbling manor, the type where the artificial lake features an island folly. There’s also a family retainer of dubious origin and an excitable cook; plus various interesting town denizens and some rather indulgent local police.

The mystery keeps a steady pace and does a good job of keeping you wondering “who did it,” without withholding information. Several times I thought I knew the line of detecting Flavia should follow, only to find out I was wrong. No wonder this book won the Debut Dagger Award. It’s a treat.

A Little Plot:

When Flavia comes across a dead man in her garden, she’s not upset. She’s so elated she considers it the best thing that ever happened to her. From then on she pursues every lead, despite (gentle) discouragement from the police. Her primary clues include a dead bird, stamps, and some connection to Norway. Not your usual set of leads, to be sure.

She occasionally uses her exceptional knowledge of chemistry to test theories and references to famous scientists are scattered throughout. But it is Flavia’s keen intelligence that eventually unmasks the murderer. Which is not necessarily a good thing.

To learn more about Flavia, this book, and Alan Bradley, click here.

The Forgotten Garden

Tuesday, June 16th, 2009

By Kate Morton

The Short Take:

If you loved The Secret Garden as a child, this book is probably going to charm your socks off. A beloved walled garden, a children’s book of fairy tales, and the search for that which is lost make this real-word novel feel like a fantasy.


I did not get into this book at first. It just felt young in writing style and story line. Then I got it.

Kate Morton’s novel is a salute to classic children’s literature, such as the above mentioned novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett and classic fairy tales. Her writing style maintains a sense of the wide-eyed wonder of youth without any prancing pixies or flitting fairies.

The plot follows three different women over the course of a century. Morton chooses to tell each story simultaneously in order to reveal pivotal plot devices in an order that leads you slowly to understand the full relationship of these women. Thankfully, after setting up her story parameters, she does unwind the stories of these three characters largely in their proper order. So though you constantly jump from 1913 to 1975 to 2005, it’s not hard to keep the story straight.

The healing power of the garden (not magical, just the down-to-earth joys of planting and growing) is the link that ties the story parts together. Just in case you miss the reference, Hodgson Burnett herself makes a very brief appearance.

Morton has also created some very wicked bad guys for her novel. A part of me wishes they had gotten larger roles to play. They were as bad as any evil stepmother or tyrannical king in Grimm’s stories.

I saw the end coming rather early but enjoyed the journey. If you liked The Secret Garden you will, too.

A Little Plot:

A four-year-old girl is alone on an Australian dock, with no memory of what went before. The harbor master takes her home, and eventually he and his wife adopt her. When “Nell” learns the truth, she begins a life-long journey to discover her true identity, which finally leads her to a grand estate on the Cornish coast of England. But still leaves mysteries behind.

Her granddaughter, Cassandra, continues the search, using Nell’s notes to delve further.

Through both their efforts, they uncover the troubling story of the beautiful Eliza — the third of our three major women.

You want more? Read the book.

Want to know more about Kate Morton or her work? Click here.

The Private Patient

Thursday, June 4th, 2009

By P. D. James

The Short Take:

Another intelligent Adam Dalgliesh mystery by a master of the form. As always, beautifully written without contrivances yet still filled with surprises.


What can one say? It’s P. D. James! She’s amazing at this. Her mysteries belong in a totally different class – a very classy class with rich language as well as well-paced plots.

If you are not familiar with her Adam Dalgleish, you have a treat in store. He’s not your typical quirky British crime solver (well, he does write poems — which do not appear in James’ books). Dalgleish is smart, calm, astute, reserved, observant, pretty much perfect. His team includes two other very smart, reserved, observant detectives who want to become perfect.

Does this make James’ work sound boring? It certainly is not. The crimes are complicated, the suspects are complicated, even the solutions — no matter how pat they might appear to the rest of the world — are known to be complicated by Dalgleish and his team.

At 89, James remains at the top of her game. This is her 19th mystery (not all feature Dalgleish). She also wrote one sci-fi book, Children of Men, which was made into a pretty good movie a couple of years ago, plus she’s written some non-fiction. It’s all good.

If you haven’t tried any P. D. James and you like smart mysteries, you have a real treat coming. Don’t worry about reading them in order. Yes, there are some continuing threads, but they’re simple and somewhat minor parts of her books. Just enjoy.

A Little Plot:

Investigative journalist Rhoda Gradwyn decides to have a major facial scar removed at a private, rural estate by a famed plastic surgeon. Shortly after successful surgery, someone kills her. Is it someone with a grudge against Rhoda? A money hungry friend? Someone hurt by her previous reporting? A person who would like to destroy the surgeon’s reputation? A stranger?

Rhoda’s life was so private, determining any motive is beyond difficult. But you-know-who never backs down.

One thing in particular I really like about this mystery: Even when the case is “solved,” we readers know that some things that should be known will never come to light, and some assumptions made were totally incorrect. It’s touches like this that make James so great.


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June 2009