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The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon by Alexander McCall Smith

There are a few authors I could read all day, all week, and never get tired of their books, their characters, and their writing style. Whereas some authors I read and enjoy but then need a break—Dickens or John Grisham or even Tolkien. Others are so delightful and amusing and light-hearted that I could take a steady diet and not feel too over-filled or burdened. P.G. Wodehouse, Jan Karon, Agatha Christie (well, maybe not “light-hearted”), and Alexander McCall Smith fall into the latter category.

Mr. McCall Smith has written several series of novels set in various locales, and I’ve enjoyed at least a few of the books in each series:

Corduroy Mansions in London
44 Scotland Street in Edinburgh, Scotland,
The Isabel Dalhousie novels, also in Scotland,
Professor Dr. von Igelfeld novels in Germany and other settings,
and of course, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency set in Botswana, Africa.

The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon is the latest, and perhaps greatest, of this best-selling detective series. I enjoyed the contrasting of modern ways and the old conservative ways of traditional Botswanan culture—and the compromises between the two. I enjoyed the two mysteries and their cozy solutions. I enjoyed the continued unfolding of the friendship between Precious Ramotswe and her assistant Grace Makutsi. And Mma Ramotswe’s husband Mr. J.L.B. Maketoni continued to work in this book as in others at loving and caring for his traditionally built and professionally astute helpmeet. The supporting cast in this series also make an appearance and add to the story, each in his own way: Mma Potokwane, Phuti Radiphuti, and the apprentices, Charlie and Fanwell.

A couple of quotes, just to brighten your day and give you something to think about:

On forgiveness:
“She had forgiven him, yes, but she still did not like to remember. And perhaps a deliberate act of forgetting went along with forgiveness. You forgave, and then you said to yourself: Now I shall forget. Because if you did not forget, then your forgiveness would be tested, perhaps many times and in ways that you could not resist, and you might go back to anger, and to hating.”

On beauty:
“You could be very glamorous and beautiful on the outside, but if inside you were filled with human faults—jealousy, spite, and the like—then no amount of exterior beauty could make up for that. Perhaps there was some sort of lemon juice for inside beauty . . . And even as she thought of it, she realized what it was love and kindness. Love was the lemon juice that cleansed and kindness was the aloe that healed.”

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King

This Sherlock Holmes tribute starts off slowly, but the pace picks up about halfway through when the author has finished setting up the relationship between Holmes and his teenage, female apprentice, Mary Russell. Mary, a sharp-eyed, feminist mirror image of Holmes himself, is, from the beginning of their acquaintance, mach more actively involved in Sherlock Holmes’ experiments and detection than was the ever-admiring, but frequently dim-witted Watson. Russell, as Holmes calls her, becomes Sherlock Holmes’ protege, and eventually his equal partner in sleuthing as the two of them face off with an enemy even more subtle and diabolical than the deceased Moriarty.

I had a good friend in high school/college days who was a great fan of Sherlock Holmes. I preferred Nero Wolfe or Miss Marple. I wish I knew where Winona was. I would definitely recommend The Beekeeper’s Apprentice to her—and to any other Sherlockian mystery fans, at least those who aren’t offended by the non-canonical addition of a female genius apprentice who sometimes outdoes even the Great Sherlock Holmes himself in her deductions and observations.

I’m in the middle of the second book of the series, A Monstrous Regiment of Women, and the feminist themes are definitely predominating in this one. However, the plot and characters and the writing are all stellar, and I’m definitely in for the long haul, unless the quality goes down or the feminist* propaganda gets to be too much. I’m looking forward to getting to know Ms. King’s version of Sherlock Holmes and his (now) partner, Mary Russell, over the course of twelve books.

*I would never use the word “feminist” to describe myself because the term has way too many connotations and associations that are anti-Christian and anti-male. However, Mary Russell’s version of feminism, so far (only in the second book), has much to recommend it. Ms. Russell is an independent and highly intelligent young woman who is learning how to relate to and older male mentor in a way that is dignified and and at the same time grateful for the things that he is able to teach her. So far, I like Mary Russell very much.

Andi Unexpected by Amanda Flower

51FJbLEKjeL._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_Andi Unexpected reminded me of the simple mystery stories I read when I was nine and ten and eleven years old, nothing profound or even memorable, just a good solid mystery story for middle grade kids who like that sort of thing.

After the death of their scientist parents in the jungles of Central America, Andi and her older sister Bethany move in with their Aunt Amelie. While cleaning out the attic, Andi discovers a hidden closet and a mystery. Who is the mysterious Andora, who shares Andi’s name? Why does no one want to talk about her? Why are the local museum director and a history professor from the nearby college so interested in Andora’s story?

I felt as if a few of the plot points were a little rushed or unexplained. Andi says at one point that Andora is her great-aunt, but I wasn’t sure how she knew this bit of geneological information. I never understood how Andi’s parents decided to name her Andora after a mysterious woman that, according to the story, no one really knew by that name. Nevertheless, for fans of The Boxcar Children or series mysteries of that genre and reading level, Andi Unexpected may be just right. It looks as if Andi Unexpected is itself the beginning of a series.

Moxie and the Art of Rule Breaking by Erin Dionne

Moxie and the Art of Rule Breaking: A 14 Day Mystery by Erin Dionne.

“Early in the morning of March 18, 1990, two men dressed as Boston police officers overwhelmed the security guards at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and then spent over an hour alone in the building, stealing thirteen pieces of priceless art. These masterpieces have yet to be found.”

51WX81hz2gL._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_Now, if that’s not a set-up for a middle grade mystery adventure novel, I don’t know what is. I read this one just after reading Hold Fast by Blue Balliet, and I had to keep reminding myself that Balliet’s novel was the jewel heist. This one was by another author, Erin Dionne, and took place in Boston, not Chicago. Nevertheless, fans of Balliet’s Chasing Vermeer or The Calder Game would probably be drawn into this tale of Moxie Fleece and her friend Ollie and their dangerous, but exciting, search for the artworks stolen from Gardner museum more than twenty years ago.

I’ve read a couple of other books by Ms. Dionne, and I really think she’s hit her stride with this story. Moxie is a little too sassy for my tastes, but no worse than my own twelve year old gets sometimes. And Moxie’s friend, Ollie, is a delight: a science geek who’s into geo-caching. I wanted to adopt Ollie.

“It’s a race against the clock through downtown Boston as Moxie and Ollie break every rule she’s ever lived by to find the art and save her family.” (from the cover blurb)

516E9eC3peL._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_Other “art theft” middle grade novels:
Masterpiece by Elise Broach. Marvin the Beetle and his eleven year old human friend, James, work together to foil an attempted art theft and forgery of priceless works by the great artist Albrecht Durer.
Chasing Vermeer and The Calder Game by Blue Balliet.
Framed by Frank Cottrell Boyce. Framed is a kid caper comedy about Fine Art and Mutant Ninja Turtles. And small town life. And slate mines. And insurance fraud. And family unity.
From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg.
Heist Society by Ally Carter. Katarina Bishop is determined to leave the family business behind, but when the family business is art theft, it’s hard to get away–with anything, including a law-abiding life.
Stealing Magic: A Sixty-Eight Rooms Adventure by Marianne Malone. “Ruthie and Jack thought that their adventures in the Thorne Rooms were over . . . until miniatures from the rooms start to disappear. Is it the work of the art thief who’s on the loose in Chicago?”
The Mystery of the Third Lucretia by Susan Runholt. “A never-before-seen Rembrandt painting has been discovered in Amsterdam. The mysterious man that Kari and Lucas observed must have been working on a forgery! Convinced that no one will believe them without more evidence, the teenage sleuths embark on a madcap adventure to find the forger. But is bringing the criminal to justice worth the price of their lives?”
The Mona Lisa Mystery by Pat Hutchins. “Class 3 of Hampstead Primary School takes a school trip to Paris and lands right in the middle of a mystery.”
Vidalia in Paris by Sasha Watson. “Teenage Vidalia’s summer in Paris studying art settles into a stimulating and enjoyable routine until she becomes romantically involved with a mysterious young man who seems to have ties to an art-theft ring.”
(Descriptions of books I have not read or reviewed come from GoodReads.)

A sequel featuring Moxie and her geo-caching friend Ollie is in the works: Ollie and the Science of Treasure Hunting by Erin Dionne, due out summer of 2014.

Poetry Friday: Nobody’s Secret by Michaela MacColl

In 1846 fifteen year old Emily of Amherst, Massachusetts, meets a mysterious young man whom she nicknames “Mr. Nobody.” Since he refuses to tell Emily his real name, she is regrettably unable to identify him when he turns up dead in her family’s pond. However, Miss Emily Dickinson feels a responsibility not only to find out the name of the deceased but also to determine just how he died.

I was reminded of Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce mysteries as I read this murder mystery featuring a fictionalized Emily Dickinson as amateur detective. Emily, as portrayed in Nobody’s Secret, is a sharp, intelligent, and very private young lady who is already scribbling down poems in a secret notebook that she keeps hidden in a very secret place. Like Flavia, Emily is not afraid of dead bodies or possible confrontations with murderers, and she is just as determined and ingenious as that other fictional girl detective.

However, in this novel we have the added flavor and pleasure of poetry, and not just any poetry but the verse of Miss Dickinson herself. The author of this YA mystery writes in a note at the end of the book, “Emily’s poems inspired this story, especially ‘I’m Nobody! Who Are You?,’ which is about how enticing anonymity might be in a small town where everyone knows everyone else’s business.”

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog! –

Emily Dickinson’s use of “creative punctuation”–particularly all the dashes– annoyed editors and publishers in the nineteenth century and provoked them to change her punctuation marks to more acceptable ones. That kind of editing, in turn, provoked Emily Dickinson, and as a result she did not allow very many of her poems to be published, or “corrected,” during her lifetime. Her poems also often had several versions. I memorized the one above a long time ago with the words “banish us” instead of “advertise”, and that’s the way I quote it, frequently, to my children.

A good solid mystery woven around immortal poetry: what more could one desire? Nobody’s Secret would be an excellent Cybils nominee in the category of Young Adult Fiction.

Poetry Friday is hosted today by Jen at Teach Mentor Texts.

Buried in a Bog by Sheila Connolly

Bostonian Maura Donovan is determined to honor her recently deceased grandmother’s wishes and visit the small Irish village of Leap in County Cork where Gran was born. But she gets more than a tourist’s introduction to Ireland, with friendly Irish people who may or may not be related to her grandmother, an Irish pub that could have been lifted from the nineteenth century, a job offer at that same pub, and unfortunately, death, possibly murder, in the sleepy Irish village where Maura just wanted to visit and lay to rest her grandmother’s memory.

Sheila Connolly has written two other mystery series: the Orchard Mysteries, set in western Massachusetts, and the Museum Mysteries, which take place in and among the museums of Philadelphia. Buried in a Bog, published in February 2013, is the beginning of a new series, called the County Cork Mysteries. Ms. Connolly has done her research, so anyone who’s interested in Ireland, its history and contemporary culture, would probably enjoy Buried in a Bog and its sequels when they come out.

I found the protagonist, Maura, a little sharp and prickly and prone to jump to conclusions. She’s trying to be an independent woman and prove that she can take care of herself, but the attitude feels unnecessarily confrontational in contrast to the ore easy-going Irishmen and women she meets in Leap. Maybe it’s an “ugly AMerican ” thing. I did like the fact that Maura is from the lower middle class in Boston. She doesn’t take her financial situation for granted; she worries about money enough to pay for basics, food and clothes and a place to live. I found this refreshingly realistic in contrast to most amateur gumshoes in books and on TV who seem to be able to finance most any journey or whim without any visible means of support. Or else they’re independently wealthy. Maura is able to go to Ireland because of a small sum of money that her grandmother saved for that purpose, and when she gets there she is careful with her funds and aware of the necessity of making plans for her future self-support.

Anyway, it’s a good story, and the series promises to be a hit for fans of everything Irish.

Speaking from Among the Bones by Alan Bradley

This latest entry in the series about 11 year old Flavia deLuce, girl chemist and intrepid solver of mysteries, features a satisfying story and a surprising ending. These books should definitely be read in order:

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag
A Red Herring Without Mustard
I Am Half-Sick of Shadows
Speaking From Among the Bones
The Dead In Their Vaulted Arches
(due out January, 2014)

However, I think I missed the fourth book somehow, and I still enjoyed this fifth one. In Speaking from Among the Bones, Flavia is determined to make her presence known when the authorities unearth the bones of Bishop Lacey’s resident saint, St. Tancred, who’s been dead for 500 years. But before the assembled company get to the bones of St. Tancred, there’s another, more modern, corpse to be disinterred. And Flavia is off on another investigation into chemistry and death in the 1950′s village near her ancestral home of Buckshaw where Flavia performs experiments in her great-uncle Tarquin DeLuce’s marvelous and well-stocked laboratory.

As the series continues, we realize more and more that our first impressions of Flavia’s family of her village friends, seen exclusively through Flavia’s own peculiar 11 year old filter, may not be entirely accurate. It’s a voyage of discovery, as Flavia realizes that perhaps her father has depths that are beyond her understanding and that perhaps her sisters Daffy and Feely do love her in their own ways, and that perhaps the other village people, both friends and enemies, are more multi-dimensional than she may have led us to believe initially. I really like this aspect of gradually opening up relationships and characters through the eyes of a very opinionated and somewhat precocious child. It’s a lovely way to show characters in all their messiness, especially with the added dimension of murder and mayhem to solve and resolve in each of the books.

Good series, and I was totally blindsided by the ending of this installment in the series–not the solution of the murder mystery, but rather an astonishing and unexpected development in Flavia’s own personal family life that sets us up for an interesting sixth book, due out in January 2014.

A Plain Death by Amanda Flower

I decided to read as many of the books as I can find that are shortlisted for the INSPY awards this year. A Plain Death is one of the five books shortlisted in the Mystery/Thriller category.

This Amish country-setting mystery is the first in the Appleseed Creek Mystery series, and it’s an adequate beginning to a promising series. When Chloe Humphrey moves to Appleseed Creek to take a job as computer services director with a small private college, she doesn’t expect to gain an Amish roommate and a new crush on said roommate’s handsome brother all on the first day. Events snowball quickly from first-day surprises to real danger as a local Amish bishop dies in an accident that may have been more than an accident, and Chloe feels compelled to help out her new friend by investigating the death and the suspicious circumstances surrounding it.

I enjoyed this book as a “bedtime story” last night even though I did find a couple of continuity errors and some minor editing errors. I’m also not sure I totally bought into the ending, but the story was engaging enough that I didn’t really care.

What is it that’s so fascinating about Amish culture anyway? I don’t read a lot of so-called “Amish fiction”, but I do see the attraction. I guess it fits with my reading and life fascinations: communities, religious communities, broken relationships and healing of those relationships, prodigals, utopian communities. I do like reading about people who have chosen a different lifestyle from the norm and about how religious communities in particular work or don’t work to bring people to a saving knowledge of the grace of God in Christ.

A Plain Death isn’t a book with a profound message about being Amish or about gospel in general, but it did have a nice flavor of AMish country. I would enjoy reading the next book in the series, A Plain Scandal, which was just published in February. A Plain Disappearance, the third book in the series, is due to be published in September, 2013.

Poetry Friday: Discovering Poems

W.H. Auden: “if I have any work to do, I must be careful not to get hold of a detective story for, once I begin one, I cannot work or sleep till I have finished it.”

Detective Story by W.H. Auden.

If you’ve read the article and the poem and returned to get my take on it, I must say I don’t know what the poem really means. I can make a stab at it.

Who cannot . . . “mark the spot where the body of his happiness was first discovered?” I take this to mean that we all know when and where we lost our innocence or our sense of innocence.

“Someone must pay for our loss of happiness, our happiness itself.” So the murderer of our happiness is someone else, someone who must pay? And what is that lingering doubt and that smile all about? I smile at the ending of the detective story because . . . I am the murderer of my own happiness? Because I know that the murderer in the story is not so very different from me? And I wonder about the justice of the verdict because . . . I don’t want to admit that I am guilty?

“But time is always killed.”

I can never figure out the who the murderer is in most detective stories either.

No Wind of Blame by Georgette Heyer

I’m definitely a fan of Golden Age detective fiction—Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Rex Stout, Josephine Tey—but I’ve read all the books I can find by those authors. And I’ve tried a few others that are supposed to belong to that particular club, Margery Allingham and John Dickson Carr in particular, and I just didn’t care for them. So, Georgette Heyer’s mysteries have that Christie/Golden Age flavor, and I’m pleased to find another writer from that era that I can recommend and enjoy myself.

No Wind of Blame has lovely, interesting characters, somewhat stereotypical but still memorable, and that’s what makes the book. There’s a fortune hunting Russian (or perhaps Georgian) prince with an impossibly long name, a histrionic and very wealthy Aunt Ermyntrude, a dogsbody poor relation with a pleasant personality and a pretty face, a very pretty daughter who tries on a new persona every time she descends the stairs, a smarmy neighbor who’s involved in some dubious business deals, and a police inspector with a refreshingly normal, down-to-earth take on the whole case. The case itself, a murder of course, is not the focus of the novel, and the solution is beyond my understanding and limited mechanical abilities. However, I didn’t care that I didn’t understand exactly how the murderer did it because I enjoyed the company, the dialogue, and the interactions between the characters so much.

I’ve read one or two of Ms. Heyer’s Regency romances, and although the wit and good characterization are still there, I don’t much like straight romance novels. An element of romance is good, but I prefer my love stories mixed up with something else, perhaps a good mystery. I plan to look for more of Ms Heyer’s mystery novels and see if they’re all as good as No Wind of Blame.

A list of Georgette Heyer’s “thrillers” or detective novels:

Footsteps in the Dark (1932)
Why Shoot a Butler? (1933)
The Unfinished Clue (1934)
Death in the Stocks (1935)
Behold, Here’s Poison (1936)
They Found Him Dead (1937)
A Blunt Instrument (1938)
No Wind of Blame (1939)
Envious Casca (1941)
Penhallow (1942)
Duplicate Death (1951)
Detection Unlimited (1953)

For a while Ms. Heyer published one thriller and one romance every year. However, her British publisher and her American publisher both disliked the book Penhallow, published in 1942, and she mostly stuck to romances with some historical fiction after that.