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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.

March by Geraldine Brooks

March, Ms. Brooks’ take-off on Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2006. I found it to be an odd little novel. Ms. Brooks takes a fictional character, Mr. March, father to the “little women”, and places him and his family in a real world with people who actually lived in Concord near the Alcott family, namely the Emersons and the Thoreaus. Then, the author sends March off to war, just as he is off “where the fighting is” in Little Women, and she tells most of the story from his point of view. It’s an odd point of view, that of a vegetarian, abolitionist, peace-loving philosopher-soldier-chaplain caught in the midst of horror and insoluble moral dilemmas.

The tone and voice of the novel matched the rather stilted nineteenth century style of Louisa May Alcott’s original novel, and while this style of writing was a little disconcerting at first, I soon began to like it and to feel transported to the Civil War era when men wrote flowery, loquacious letters to their loved ones.

“I have now traveled so far south that I find myself come to a place where our common expression ‘white as snow’ has no useful meaning. Here, one who wishes his words to make plain sense had better say ‘white as cotton.’ I will not say that I find the landscape lovely. We go on through Nature to God, and my Northern eye misses the grandeur that eases that ascent. I yearn for mountains, or at least for the gentle ridges of Massachusetts; the sweet folds and furrows that offer the refreshment of a new vista as each gap or summit is obtained. Here all is obvious, a song upon a single note. One wakes and falls asleep to a green sameness, the sun like a pale egg yolk, peering down from a white sky.”

March is an adult novel, and in it, the “perfect” Marmee and the idealized Father March become real flesh and blood people with faults and passions and uncertainties and doubts about their own choices and abilities. March, in particular, is a man who finds himself in a place and time where his ideals and moral philosophy are tested and found wanting. And still he and his wife, the Marmee of Little Women, come through the fires of war and suffering with admirable character and fortitude. There is much to respect in Geraldine Brooks’ March, even though Bronson Alcott and I would find much to disagree about in real life. (I’m not a transcendentalist nor a utopian nor a vegetarian nor a pacifist nor a Unitarian/free thinker.)

The novel does a good job of bringing out the impracticality and impracticability of March’s/Alcott’s beliefs and still making him admirable as a man who tried, at least in the fictional version of his story, to remain true to his principles. I think all of us, as we age, feel the tension between the youthful ideals that we still believe to be right and good and true and the imperfection and fallenness of the world we actually inhabit, including the impossibility of remaining pure in our own execution and implementation of those ideals and principles to which we bear allegiance.

“You are not God. You do not determine the outcome. The outcome is not the point. . . The point is the effort. That you, believing what you believed—what you sincerely believed, including the commandment ‘thou shalt not kill’–acted upon it. To believe, to act, and to have events confound you–I grant you, that is hard to bear. But to believe, and not to act, or to act in a way that every fiber of your soul held was wrong–how can you not see? That is what would have been reprehensible.”

“[T]here is only one thing to do when we fall, and that is to get up, and go on with the life that is set in front of us, and try and do the good of which our hands are capable for all the people who come in our way.”

Edenbrooke by Julianne Donaldson

“In true romance fashion, it’s pretty easy to guess how the relationships will all work out.” ~Susan Coventry at ReadingWorld.

Susan made this rather predictable observation about a different Regency romance novel that she was reviewing, but the truism pretty much sums up Edenbrooke as well. I picked up Edenbrooke from my library bookshelf because I needed something light, and easy, and yes, predictable, to distract me from the not-so-light, not-so-easy, and not predictable at all things that are going on in my real life. Edenbrooke served its purpose admirably.

Gentleman meets lady in dire circumstances. Her carriage has just been attacked by a highwayman, and she has escaped, barely. The gentleman is at first unhelpful and insufferably rude. Then, he realizes his mistake and becomes quite charming. The two develop a bantering relationship, interspersed with smoldering looks, racing pulses, and lots of double talk. Misunderstandings ensue. The Noble Idiot plot is enacted on both sides: she must give up him because her twin sister planned to pursue him first, and he must not pursue her because honor forbids that he do so while she is a guest in his house (really?).

Misunderstandings are eventually cleared up to the satisfaction of all concerned. Barriers to true love are removed. Pulses continue to race. Smoldering looks become passionate kisses, and all live happily ever after.

Thank you, Ms. Donaldson, for an afternoon of pleasant distraction.

Note: Both Edenbrooke and Ms. Donaldson’s second Regency romance, Blackmoore, are billed as “A Proper Romance.” There are no sex scenes, and the prose never turns even slightly purplish. “Proper Romance” is a product category of Shadow Mountain Publishing, which is, in turn, the general trade imprint of Deseret Books, owned by the Church of Jesus Christ, Latter Day Saints (Mormon). There is nothing specifically “Mormon” about Edenbrooke.

Shadow Mountain Publishing announces a new brand of romance novels, appropriately dubbed “a proper romance,” with the newly released title Edenbrooke, by Julianne Donaldson.
This new brand of “proper” romance allows readers to enjoy romance at its very best—and at its cleanest—portraying everything they love about a passionate, romantic novel, without busting corsets or bed scenes.

Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett

If you’re a logophile, a lover of words, you’re bound to like this beginning book to a five volume series, set in sixteenth century (1547) Scotland. The hero/villain of the tale, Francis Crawford of Lymond, is a veritable fount of words, a repository of language, a giddy young man with a facile and garrulous tongue. Here are just a few of the beguiling, beauteous, buxom words I descried in the course of reading this historical fiction adventure:

Enteric: of or pertaining to the enteron; intestinal.
Decorticating: to remove the bark, husk, or outer covering from.
Damascened: of or pertaining to the art of damascening (to produce wavy lines on Damascus steel).
Decumbiture: Confinement to a sick bed, or time of taking to one’s bed from sickness.
Peripetia: a sudden turn of events or an unexpected reversal, especially in a literary work.
Yaffle: another name for green woodpecker, imitative of its cry.
Parure: a matching set of jewels or ornaments.
Sphacelate: To develop or produce gangrenous or necrotic tissue.
Hebetude: the state of being dull; lethargy.
Bauchly: in an inferior or substandard way
Cibation: The act of taking food; (Alchemy) The process or operation of feeding the contents of the crucible with fresh material.
Predicant: preaching.
Talion: lex talionis; exaction of compensation in kind.
Thrawnness: twistedness; crookedness; distortion.
Snib: a bolt, catch, lock, or fastening on a door or window.
Encysted: to enclose or become enclosed in a cyst.
Frangible: easily broken; breakable.
Corium: Anatomy, Zoology , dermis. (skin?)
Probang: a long, slender, elastic rod with a sponge, ball, or the like, at the end, to be introduced into the esophagus or larynx, as for removing foreign bodies, or for introducing medication.
Roulade: a musical embellishment consisting of a rapid succession of tones sung to a single syllable.
Crapulence: sick from gross excess in drinking or eating.
Fossa: a pit, cavity, or depression, as in a bone.
Hackbut: harquebus; any of several small-caliber long guns operated by a matchlock or wheel-lock mechanism, dating from about 1400.
Squab: a nestling pigeon, marketed when fully grown but still unfledged.
Calx: the oxide or ashy substance that remains after metals, minerals, etc., have been thoroughly roasted or burned.
Columbarium: a sepulchral vault or other structure with recesses in the walls to receive the ashes of the dead.
Pannage: pasturage for pigs, esp in a forest; acorns, beech mast, etc, on which pigs feed.
Sudorific: causing sweat; diaphoretic.
Insifflating: (insufflating?) to blow or breathe (something) in; to breathe upon, especially upon one being baptized or upon the water of baptism.
Canescent: covered with whitish or grayish pubescence, as certain plants.
Barghest: a legendary doglike goblin believed to portend death or misfortune.
Fugitation: Scots law, a judicial declaration of outlawry; the act of fleeing.
Escharotic: producing a scab, especially after a burn
Limmer: chiefly Scottish, scoundrel.

Yes, Mr. Crawford and I are both a little drunk on words. But there’s a story here, too, a plot just as labyrinthine and inscrutable as the conversation and the literary allusions that the characters strew about with merry abandon. And some intriguing characters, especially Mr. Crawford of Lymond himself. If you love Scotland and its history, if you love language, if you’re fond of old-style romantic adventures like The Three Musketeers or The Scarlet Pimpernel, if you like dashing young rakish heroes, medieval conspiracy and intrigue, and literary and philosophical allusions galore, you might very well relish The Game of Kings.

By the way, I wondered throughout the book if the words themselves were actually historically accurate: in other words, could a man living just after the death of Henry VIII in Scotland use all of the words that Crawford of Lymond uses? It would be difficult for a writer of historical fiction to be completely, historically accurate in terms of language, and sadly I figured out that Ms. Dunnett is not. At one point Master Crawford sarcastically tells his brother who is handling his poor, wounded body rather roughly, “I enjoy sadism, too.” Unfortunately, in a strike against historically accurate language, Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade, from whose name the word “sadism” is taken, didn’t live until the latter half of the eighteenth century. And several of the words that are defined above were dated in the online dictionary as coming into the language after 1600. Oh, well, you can enjoy the inundation of words and story in this novel anyway, without worrying about whether each word or phrase that Francis Crawford of Lymond uses would have actually been available to him. Lymond is a regular Shakespeare: he makes up his own appellations when the common tongue of the time period fails him.

I’m planning to proceed to the reading of the second book in the series, Queen’s Play, just as soon as I can get a copy from the library. It’s about the child, Mary, Queen of Scots, in France, as Lymond of Crawford works to guard Mary’s and Scotland’s interests in the court of French King Henri II and his queen Catherine de’Medici.

Rose Wilder Lane and Anne Morrow Lindbergh

The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin.

A Wilder Rose: Rose Wilder Lane, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and their Little Houses by Susan Wittig Albert.

This week I serendipitously read both of these biographical novels about two strong women of the early twentieth century: Rose Wilder Lane, who was an author and independent world traveler, and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, also an author, a mother, and wife to the most famous American man of the 1920′s, aviator Charles Lindbergh.

Both Rose and Anne have been in danger of being overshadowed by their more famous family members and collaborators, Laura Ingalls Wilder and Charles Lindbergh, respectively. Both women wrote under difficult circumstances: Rose while essentially supporting her parents and two adopted “sons” through the years of the Great Depression, and Anne while raising a family of five children almost single-handedly during Charles’ long and frequent absences. Both women have not always received the credit due them for their extraordinary accomplishments.

It was fascinating to read about Rose Wilder Lane and Anne Morrow Lindbergh and realize as I read that these two women could very well have crossed paths during their lifetimes, maybe more than once. Of course, Anne’s life story is dominated by her marriage to Charles Lindbergh and by the tragic kidnapping and death of the couple’s first son, Charlie, when he was only two years old. Anne Morrow knew when she married the famous aviator who had been the first to fly across the Atlantic Ocean that her life would be forever changed and circumscribed by Lindbergh’s overwhelming fame and by the press that hounded him and wrote about every detail of his days. But she had no idea how Charles Lindbergh’s celebrity and popularity would damage her family and transform even her accomplishments.

“Working for months on an account of our trip to the Orient, in the end I still wasn’t satisfied with it; I had found it impossible to capture the innocence of that time before my baby’s death. It had done modestly well, and Charles was proud of it, although I couldn’t help but think that most people bought it out of morbid curiosity. The bereaved mother’s little book—cold you read her tragedy between the lines? I’d imagined people paging feverishly through it, eager to find evidence of a splotch tear, a blurry word, a barely suppressed sob.”

The sad thing is that, if I am honest, back when I first read Anne Lindbergh’s published diaries, and again when I read this novel about her life, I was waiting to get to the part where her son was kidnapped. I wasn’t “paging feverishly”, but I was anxious to see how the tragedy would be written, how the utter horror of the defining event in the Lindberghs’ family life would be handled in print. Well, it’s vey sad and quite moving to read about a family torn apart by journalistic excess and by criminals who fed on that excessive notoriety that made the Lindberghs a target.

It’s very interesting that both of these books are not biographies, but rather fictionalized blends of fact and imagination that both Ms. Benjamin and Ms. Albert felt were more vivid ways to tell the real story of these two women than a straight piece of nonfiction would have been. In A Wilder Rose, Rose Wilder Lane tells her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder, several times that her books (Little House on the Prairie and its companions and sequels) can’t be told as the exact history of her family’s travels and travails as they really happened. The family stories must be turned into fiction, shaped and reworked as stories that hang together and have a beginning, a middle and an end. And somehow in doing that reshaping, the story become more true than it would be if it were a simple recitation of the dry facts. The fiction gives the stories a context and a theme and tells more about the feelings and drama behind the history than could be done without the framework and freedom of fiction.

“‘I want to tell the true story,’ she said firmly. Her blue eyes darkened and her mouth set in that hard, stubborn line that I knew very well. ‘I’m sorry if it’s not exciting enough to suit those editors in New York, but I’m not going to make up lies to make it more exciting.’
‘Nobody’s suggesting that you tell lies,’ I replied cautiously.’But sometimes we need to use fiction to tell the truth. Sometimes fiction tells a truer story than facts.’”

It’s an odd truth, but it works in both of these books and in the Little House books. I very much enjoyed reading about Rose Wilder Lane and Ann Morrow Lindbergh, and I feel as if I know them both in a way. I must say, however, that I don’t think I would have liked Ms. Lane very much, too prickly and independent, and I’m sure I would have wanted to slap Charles Lindbergh up the side of the head, if he really did what the book says he did and if I knew anything about it.

The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin has been quite the popular beach read this summer and is available in bookstores, libraries, and from Amazon. A Wilder Rose by mystery writer Susan Wittig Albert is due to be published in October, 2013, but is not yet available for pre-order, as far as I can tell.

To Whisper Her Name by Tamera Alexander

Romance novels are not usually my thing. Historical fiction is. To Whisper Her Name is an historical romance, set just after the Civil War in Nashville, published by Zondervan, which makes it a Christian historical romance, doubly suspect in some circles.

I must say, however, I found the novel absorbing, if somewhat difficult to swallow whole in some aspects. The romance was fine, although Olivia, the female half of this romantic pairing, overcomes her novel-long inhibitions about marrying the male lead rather abruptly in the last few pages of the book. The part I couldn’t believe was the deep friendship that develops between Ridley Cooper, a white Union army veteran, and Bob Green, a black former slave and expert horse whisperer, on the plantation, Belle Meade. Ridley actually lives with “Uncle Bob” in a cabin on the plantation grounds. I would like to believe that such a friendship would have been possible, would have been tolerated, in those times in the South, but I find it difficult to envision.

The former slaves who are now working at Belle Meade also invite Ridley, and later Olivia, to their church meetings, to eat meals in their homes, and even to their parties. I just can’t picture the class and race differences being overcome so easily and openly. Maybe someone knows of examples of post-Civil War interracial friendships that would disprove my skepticism?

Anyway, it’s obvious from the beginning of the book that Olivia and Ridley are meant to get together by the end. However, there are, of course, impediments to the match. Olivia is a widow, loyal to the Southern cause, betrayed and made wary of marriage by her late husband’s cruelty. Ridley is a Southerner who fought for the Union, a traitor in the eyes of most other Southerners, and keeping that aspect of his life a secret from everyone is the only thing that allows him to live at Belle Meade long enough to learn about the care and husbandry of thoroughbred racing horses from Uncle Bob. Ridley’s plan is to learn all he can and then leave the South to build a ranch in the Wild Western state of Colorado. How can he and Olivia, a proper Southern lady who, moreover, is afraid of horses, ever come together?

Never fear. They can and will. It’s a Christian historical romance, after all.

To Whisper Her Name is on the shortlist of books nominated for the 2013 INSPY Awards in the Romance category.

Doc by Mary Doria Russell

He could not accept that Fortuna might smile on him for half of his short life, only to watch pitilessly while his lungs gave out, leaving him to suffocate slowly. He refused to bow before a Providence determined to deliver him to an unmarked pauper’s grave in Colorado, fifteen hundred miles from the home he would never see again.
John Henry Holliday believed in science, in rationality and in free will. He believed in study, in the methodical acquisition and accumulation of useful skills. He believed that he could homestead his future with planning and preparation; sending scouts ahead and settling it with pioneering effort. Above all, he believed in practice, which increased predictability and reduced the element of chance in any situation.
The very word made him feel calm. Piano practice. Dental practice. Pistol practice, poker practice. Practice was power. Practice was authority over his own destiny.
Luck? That was what fools called ignorance and laziness and despair when they gave themselves up to the turn of a card, and lost, and lost, and lost . . .

Ah, yes, Invictus. “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.” I don’t believe it, and it doesn’t really seem to have worked too well for Doc Holliday, the central character in Mary Doria Russell’s novel, Doc, either. Doc Holliday, as portrayed in Ms. Russell’s story, was more than a bloodthirsty dentist, gambler, and gunfighter who “shot’em up” at the OK Corral and died at the tender age of 36. In this book, Doc is a philosopher and a pianist and a lover of beauty and a homesick soul. Holliday’s tragedy was that he struggled with tuberculosis, the same disease that killed his mother when John Henry Holliday was only 15 years old. At the time many people who were diagnosed with TB moved to drier climate of the American Southwest because it was believed that the dry air was curative or at least palliative for those suffering from the deadly disease. Holiday left his home and family in Atlanta, Georgia and moved first to Dallas, Texas, then to Dodge City, Kansas, and then to Tombstone, Arizona where the famous gunfight took place—with many stops and detours in between.

The events of this book take place mostly during Holliday’s time in Dodge, and Russell’s Doc seems to be the same man that Wyatt Earp, his friend, once described in a newspaper article, “Doc was a dentist, not a lawman or an assassin, whom necessity had made a gambler; a gentleman whom disease had made a frontier vagabond; a philosopher whom life had made a caustic wit; a long lean, ash-blond fellow nearly dead with consumption, and at the same time the most skillful gambler and the nerviest, speediest, deadliest man with a six-gun that I ever knew.” (Wikipedia, Doc Holliday)

Wikipedia, by the way, lists nine other novels based on the life and times of Doc Holliday. He’s a popular subject, I guess. I found this particular take on this infamous historical character to be fascinating. Warning: the dialog does include some, not much but some, profanity and crude language–which I thought was unnecessary and distracting.

As for the philosophical question that Doc debates with himself in the quotation above, I would argue that neither self-determination nor luck is the key to one’s destiny or future. God is in control, and we have choices within His created order. We can certainly “refuse to bow” or give ourselves up to despair—or we can trust His love and His grace and work within His providence to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. Thank God it’s not all up to me and my practice and self-control, and thank God His grace is abundant and free, even when I don’t understand His plan.

The Resurrection and the Life

I thought I’d post a few times today and tomorrow about the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ and what it means to me and to some of the authors and fictional and actual characters that I have on my bookshelves. I’m going to take turns blogging and house-cleaning and see how that goes.

I first read Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities when I was in ninth grade. Three of us—Christina, Teresa, and I— wrote a chapter-by-chapter summary of the entire book, making our own little study guide to the novel as a school project. We did this before the age of personal computers and before any of us knew how to type. I can’t remember exactly what the finished product looked like, but it was a lot of work.

The themes of death, burial, imprisonment, rescue and resurrection are woven throughout Dickens’ tale set during the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror. Doctor Manette is rescued from a living death inside the Bastille. Jerry Cruncher is a “resurrection man” who digs up dead bodies to sell them. Charles Darnay is rescued and recalled to life twice during the novel, once when he is on trial in England and again when he is headed for guillotine in France.

But the most vivid representation of death and resurrection comes at the end of the novel when the reprobate Sydney Carton gives up his life to save Charles and Lucy Darnay and to ensure their future together. Carton is walking down the street when he remembers these words from Scripture read at his father’s funeral long ago:

“I am the resurrection, and the life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me, shall never die.”

Now, that the streets were quiet, and the night wore on, the words were in the echoes of his feet, and were in the air. Perfectly calm and steady, he sometimes repeated them to himself as he walked; but, he heard them always.

The night wore out, and, as he stood upon the bridge listening to the water as it splashed the river-walls of the Island of Paris, where the picturesque confusion of houses and cathedral shone bright in the light of the moon, the day came coldly, looking like a dead face out of the sky. Then, the night, with the moon and the stars, turned pale and died, and for a little while it seemed as if Creation were delivered over to Death’s dominion.

But, the glorious sun, rising, seemed to strike those words, that burden of the night, straight and warm to his heart in its long bright rays. And looking along them, with reverently shaded eyes, a bridge of light appeared to span the air between him and the sun, while the river sparkled under it.

The strong tide, so swift, so deep, and certain, was like a congenial friend, in the morning stillness He walked by the stream, far from the houses, and in the light and warmth of the sun fell asleep on the bank. When he awoke and was afoot again, he lingered there yet a little longer, watching an eddy that turned and turned purposeless, until the stream absorbed it, and carried it on to the sea.- “Like me!”

A trading-boat, with a sail of the softened colour of a dead leaf, then glided into his view, floated by him, and died away. As its silent track in the water disappeared, the prayer that had broken up out of his heart for a merciful consideration of all his poor blindnesses and errors, ended in the words, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

On Good Friday, when we are in the midst of death and sin and darkness, it does sometimes seem a if “Creation were delivered over to Death’s dominion.” A blogging friend sent out a tweet earlier today saying that he had “difficulty ‘pretending’ on Good Friday that Jesus is dead.” Of course, Jesus isn’t dead, but as far as imagining the feeling of despair and “being delivered over to death”, I have no trouble whatsoever. Sometimes things in this world are very dark, and the hope of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and our eventual resurrection with Him is all that keeps from utter despair.

Thank God for Resurrection Sunday!

The Bess Crawford series by Charles Todd

A Duty to the Dead by Charles Todd. In which we are introduced to nurse Bess Crawford as she becomes a survivor of the sinking of HMHS Britannic in the Kea Channel off the Greek island of Kea on the morning of November 21, 1916. Upon her return to England to convalesce, Bess carries a cryptic message to the family of a soldier who died while under her care. The message begins a chain of events which lead to Bess’s involvement with a man who is possibly an escaped lunatic, but also possibly a wronged man.

An Impartial Witness by Charles Todd. This second book in the series featuring World War I nurse detective Bess Crawford uses good, solid storytelling and slow, careful character development to hold readers’ interest. Upon Bess’s return to England from the trenches of France, she witnesses a tearful parting between a woman, Mrs. Evanson, and a soldier who is not her husband but possibly her lover. When Bess recognizes Mrs. Evanson from her picture that was carried by her pilot husband and when the woman is later murdered, Bess becomes enmeshed in the family’s affairs and in the resolution of the mystery of her death.

In both of these books, the mystery and the characters were intriguing and entertaining. Bess Crawford is an independent young woman, and yet she doesn’t come across as a twenty-first century feminist artificially transplanted into the soil of the World War I-era. Instead, she has a family to whom she listens and she allows herself to be protected to some extent by the men in her life, especially family friend Simon Brandon. (I think Bess and Simon are headed for romance, but at least by the end of the second book in the series, the romance is completely unrealized.) And still Bess does what Bess feels obligated or drawn to do, and she meddles in things that are not really her concern.

In fact, that would be my only complaint about these books. For the purpose of furthering the plot, the authors (a mother-son team using the Charles Todd pseudonym) have Bess ask all sorts of questions and become over-involved in the lives of strangers with very little justification for her visits and intrusions. However, I can overlook the lack of warrant for Bess’s interference in the lives of her patients and their families for the sake of a good story.

Lots of comparisons are made at Amazon and Goodreads between these books and the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear. I liked these two, at least, better than I liked the books about Maisie. Maybe I just liked these books set during the Great War better than those set just after.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

The series of mysteries that begins with this novel and features almost eleven year old detective, chemist, and poison expert Flavia de Luce has been on my radar for some time now, but I finally used my Barnes and Noble gift card to buy The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and I’m determined to consume the other novels in the series as quickly as possible. The first one is just as good as the many fans have said it was.

From Mr. Bradley’s website: “Great literary crime detectives aren’t always born; they’re sometimes discovered, blindfolded and tied up in a dark closet by their nasty older sisters. Eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce’s bitter home life and vicious sibling war inspires her solitary diversions and “strange talents” tinkering with the chemistry set in the laboratory of their inherited Victorian house, plotting sleuth-like vengeance on Ophelia (17) and Daphne (13), and delving into the forbidden past of her taciturn, widowed father, Colonel de Luce. It comes as no surprise, then, that the material for her next scientific investigation will be the mysterious corpse that she uncovers in the cucumber patch.”

I will say that Flavia is unbelievably precocious; she reminds me of my youngest, Z-baby who is intelligent, stubborn, sassy, and spoiled rotten. I say this with some chagrin, since I promised myself that my youngest would not be a pain in the you-know-what like so many other babies of of the family tend to be. And then life happened, and I find myself amazed at her maturity and giftedness and at the same time busily correcting and counteracting her sometimes tendencies to be presumptuous and impertinent.

Anyway, Flavia is a character who might exhaust you if you were her parent, but in a book she’s a delight. I can’t wait to get to know her better, and I’m also anxious to find out more about her sisters, her long-suffering but somewhat absent father, and Dogger, the loyal retainer who serves as dependable adult in Flavia’s life (even though he suffers from something like PTSD or some such ailment as a result of his war experience). The other books in the series are>

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

I plan to request them from the library immediately. Mr. Bradley is a Canadian author who now lives in Malta, Sherlockian author of a book that argued that Holmes was a woman (!), and a septuagenarian.

Sweet and sassy, and the author is over seventy years old? Congratulations, Mr. Bradley!