Friday, January 30, 2015

Review of Alan Bradley's As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust by Alan Bradley

Yes, the weather outside is frightful, but it's just perfect for starting on my anticipated winter book pile. I began with Alan Bradley's As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust (Delacorte, January 6, 2015), the seventh in the Flavia de Luce series. It was an enjoyable way to banish the howls of the wind outside.

To Flavia de Luce, "banished" is the saddest word in the English language. The word echoes through her mind much like the sound of great iron doors clanging closed behind her. Flavia is 12 years old, the youngest of the children born to the exceedingly eccentric de Luce family. The de Luces live in rural England in a rapidly decaying manor called Buckshaw. For years, Flavia has felt herself to be a cuckoo in the nest, because she has never gotten along well with her two elder sisters, Feely and Daffy.

Flavia's mother disappeared in the Himalayas when Flavia was just a baby, so she has no recollection of her. Colonel de Luce is a distant, withdrawn man who has never gotten over the death of his wife.

Shortly after Winston Churchill himself escorts the body of Harriet de Luce to Buckshaw, and the mystery of her death is solved (in The Dead In Their Vaulted Arches (Delacorte, 2014)), it is decided that even though Flavia is quite the smartest young person around, she is also bound for danger in her own way. The best solution seems to be to send her to her mother's old boarding school in Toronto, Canada. Despite the carrots of an up-to-date chemistry lab complete with spectrophotometer and access to a rare, fancy electron microscope, Flavia sees the move as a dire punishment. Banished, indeed.

Crossing the Atlantic in early September on the vessel RMS Scythia gives Flavia time to accustom herself to her fate at Miss Bodycote's Female Academy. When she arrives there it is late, as well as dark, and she is shooed off to her room for the night. Shortly after lights out, she gets a visit from a fellow boarder, Collingwood, who felt the need to meet the newcomer, despite the curfew.

When the headmistress, Mrs. Fawlthorne, hears something and comes to Flavia's room, it appears that Flavia's sojourn here might not last 24 hours. When Collingwood tries to hide in a chimney, she disturbs a corpse that has been lying in wait for this sort of nudge to set it catapulting out onto the floor, wrapped in a Union Jack.

Of course, dead bodies are one thing that Flavia is comfortable with, but it is the reaction to the discovery that sets her back. Expecting a nice mystery with a kindly police inspector who will undoubtedly require Flavia's skills and knowhow, Flavia sees little to no police response––and besides that, Collingwood seems to have disappeared. This girl is apparently only one of several students to have melted away from the Academy.

With all this grist to her mill, Flavia begins to grind away at the mystery, though everyone she talks to would rather hush her and tell her to trust no one. So Flavia has to rely on all her own special weapons.

Feigning stupidity is one of her specialties. She says that if stupidity were theoretical physics, then she would be Albert Einstein.

She knows how to talk to certain adults.  When there are things that both of them know, and both know the other knows, that can be talked about. But when there are things that both of them know that the other doesn't know they know, these things must not be spoken of.

Supernatural hearing is a trait that she inherited from her mother, and here at Miss Bodycote's it comes in very handy. An encyclopedic––albeit self-taught––knowledge of chemistry has also been a great tool in her armamentarium, greatly needed to discern the causes of death.

A very valuable part of her special skills is knowing when to appear to surrender and also when to step into the adult world and when to seek refuge in the mannerisms of a child.

The obstacles that Flavia must overcome are those natural hardships, that are part and parcel of being far away from home. She gets waves of homesickness that threaten to overwhelm her and this is aggravated by a species of culture shock. Having grown up with the classical music of the BBC, Flavia is stunned by the raucous sound of the pop music she hears all over the dorms. Those songs of the fifties like Sh-boom Sh-boom, Aba Daba Honeymoon and Mockin' Bird Hill make her wonder if she is going to be living with savages.

Accustomed as she is to all the secret spots of Buckshaw and its environs, she finds herself completely disoriented in Toronto. She doesn't even know where to buy a newspaper. With all these strikes against her, Flavia tells herself she must soldier on and this she does in delightful fashion as she proceeds to shake Miss Bodycote's Academy to its foundations.

All of the previous Flavia de Luce adventures surrounded the young sleuth with a grand supporting cast, like the mysterious Dogger, his father's batman, sisters who cut Flavia off at the knees several times a day and people in the village who can be manipulated like clay when Flavia needs something.

This book is a departure from that comfortable formula, but Flavia translates well––although there are times when she wonders why it is that even though she speaks English and they speak English, they don't always understand each other.

Friday, January 23, 2015

My Wartime Ration Books

Our friend, Lady Jane Digby's Ghost, raved about Lissa Evans's Crooked Heart here recently, and I just had to read it. She was nice enough to send me her copy and she was right; it's delightful.

Crooked Heart is the story of Noel Bostock and Vee Sedge, a couple of misfits in England during World War II. Noel is a 10-year-old orphan boy, living with his eccentric godmother, Mattie, in her rambling old house near Hampstead Heath. Mattie was a suffragette in the '20s and has a disdain for anything conventional, including the evacuation of children at the beginning of the war, keeping a house tidy, finding a new school for Noel when his old one closes, or listening to the local ARP Warden's lectures on air raid precautions.

Mattie decides to educate Noel herself, going on nature field trips to the Heath and setting him essays on subjects like "Would You Rather Be Blind or Deaf?," What is Freedom?" and "Should People Keep Pets?." Noel is happy not to have to go to school with other children, since his experience is that they are usually stupid and like to bully him for his nerdiness. When Noel and Mattie are not in session in their home school, Noel reads detective stories (I knew I liked that boy right from the start!) and Mattie sings old protest songs:
On the final chorus repeats, Mattie would simultaneously hum and whistle. 'A rare and underrated skill,' she'd remark, 'and one that, sadly, has never brought me the acclaim it deserves.'
Mattie's eccentricity becomes more marked as she falls victim to dementia. At first, it can be amusing, like when she can't remember the last name of the architect of St. Paul's Cathedral, though she knows it's a bird's name, like Owl or Ostrich. Noel reminds her that it's Sir Christopher Wren, and she thanks him, but responds "I can't help thinking 'Sir Christopher Ostrich' has a tremendous ring to it." The sad day eventually comes when Noel must be evacuated from London.

In St. Alban's, an odd boy like Noel doesn't find any quick takers, but the promise of government subsidy eventually persuades Vee Sedge to take him in. Vee is middle-aged, the sole support of her dotty mother, who spends her days writing letters to Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and her lump of a son, Donald, who uses his heart murmur as an excuse for utter sloth. Vee is barely scraping by, cleaning houses and doing other odd jobs.

The war gives her a chance to make some much-needed money on the fiddle, like so many others. Vee's particular scam is to collect for fake charities. The problem is, she's just not very good at it; too nervous and bad at keeping her stories believable and consistent. Noel, the world's youngest management consultant and business partner, turns Vee's business into a far more successful entrepreneurial effort.

From this point, the plot thickens, with Vee and Noel discovering other much more serious crimes afoot. This partnership will evolve in ways both comical and heart-warming, and these are a couple of characters who feel so real you'll miss them
when you close the covers. But don't forget, this is an English story, which means that just as there was very little sugar allowed by a wartime ration book, this is a story that is never overly sweet.

If I were you, I'd put Crooked Heart on your wish list. It will be published in the US by Harper on July 28. If you can't wait, buy the UK book (Doubleday, 2014) or, as I'm doing, order a copy of Lissa Evans's previous World War II novel, Their Finest Hour and a Half (Doubleday, 2009), about a young copywriter at the Ministry of Information.

Evans's cock-eyed look at a boy's life in World War II England reminded me a little bit of one of my all-time favorite movies, Hope and Glory. The protagonist is seven-year-old Bill Rowan, who discovers that World War II is the most exciting thing imaginable to come into his life. Learning to identify all the fighter planes and joining a gang that plays in the rubble of bombed-out houses are so much more fun than sitting in school and the crushing boredom of identifying all the "pink bits" on the world map that form the British Empire.

Bill's point of view is based on the boyhood experiences of director John Boorman, which provides some added poignancy in seeing Bill's sister's growing up way too fast; his father, a Great War veteran, heading off to be an army clerk; and his mother, a talented pianist, wondering what might have been if she'd married family friend Mac, who shares her love of classical music. But the real fun begins when the family's own house is destroyed and they must move in with Bill's grandparents, who live outside London, on the river.

Bill's grandfather and Noel's Mattie would have made quite a pair. Grandpa George is at least as eccentric as she, and shares her disdain for public education and any other convention. He's given to fits of temper, melancholic (and wine-fueled) reminiscences of old girlfriends, and a keen desire to teach Bill how to fish effectively and, more importantly, how to bowl a cricket googly so that the two of them can defeat Bill's father and Mac, who played for their World War I regiments. Bill is half-terrified and half-eager co-conspirator.

What both Crooked Heart and Hope and Glory have in common is that they focus on how, amidst the rationing and dropping bombs, it was a time of liberation from social convention. Most of all, though, they're just plain fun.

One of Crooked Heart's reviewers compared it to a couple of her favorite books, Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love, and Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle. That made me wildly impatient to read the book, since I Capture the Castle is pretty darned wonderful and The Pursuit of Love is one of my most-prized books, one that I re-read regularly.

The Pursuit of Love is set in the years just before World War II and during the war. This time, the story is more female focused. Written in the voice of Fanny, it's about her wildly unconventional cousins, the Radletts, who are essentially Nancy Mitford's own family, which was both celebrated and notorious in England from the 1920s on.

Fanny's Uncle Matthew is mercurial, anti-social and bad-tempered, famously rude to houseguests. He roars at his seven children, but complacently allows them to tease him and, to everyone's vast entertainment, hunts them with dogs over their countryside. He has his surprising soft spots. He loves to play Caruso records at full volume, and is oddly fond of his in-law, Davey, who is a hypochondriac and esthete.

The seven Mitford siblings in 1935
The real focus of The Pursuit of Love is Fanny's beautiful cousin, Linda, who marries a crashing bore of a banker, leaves him for a revolutionary, and then leaves him in turn for a charming Frenchman. Linda's pursuit of love is comic and bittersweet, and the hazards and liberations the war bring to the entire family are more of the same. This is a book to read whenever you need some cheering up and some non-saccharine sweetness.

I just realized I wrote this entire piece about two World War II books and a movie without once writing "Nazi" or "Hitler." How about that!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Edgar Awards Nominees 2015

It's hard to believe, but it's awards season already. The Golden Globes have come and gone. We know the Oscar nominees and we'll learn the winners on February 24th. The finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Awards were in the headlines a few days ago.

This morning, the 2015 Edgar Awards nominees were announced by the Mystery Writers of America. The Edgars honor the best in crime fiction, nonfiction and television published or produced for the first time in the United States in 2014. (Self-published books are ineligible, even if they are later published by an eligible publisher.) Books from non-U.S. publishers are eligible "if they are widely distributed in the U.S. and are readily available on the shelves in brick-and-mortar stores for the first time during 2014."

The winners will be announced at the MWA banquet in New York on April 29th.

Here are the 2015 nominees:

Best Novel


Wiley Cash: This Dark Road to Mercy(HarperCollins/William Morrow)
Mo Hayder: Wolf (Grove/Atlantic/Atlantic Monthly)
Stephen King: Mr. Mercedes (Simon & Schuster/Scribner)
Stuart Neville: The Final Silence (Soho)
Ian Rankin: Saints of the Shadow Bible (Hachette/Little, Brown)
Karin Slaughter: Coptown (Penguin Randomhouse/Delacorte)

Best First Novel by an American Author


Tom Bouman: Dry Bones in the Valley (W.W. Norton)
Julia Dahl: Invisible City (Minotaur)
Allen Eskens: The Life We Bury (Prometheus/Seventh Street)
C. B. McKenzie: Bad Country (Minotaur/Thomas Dunne)
Adam Sternbergh: Shovel Ready (Crown)
Ashley Weaver: Murder at the Brightwell (Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Book)

Best Paperback Original


Chris Abani: The Secret History of Las Vegas (Penguin Randomhouse/Penguin)
Alison Gaylin: Stay With Me (HarperCollins/William Morrow)
William Lashner: The Barkeep (Amazon/Thomas and Mercer)
Catriona McPherson: The Day She Died (Llewellyn Worldwide/Midnight Ink)
Lisa Turner: The Gone Dead Train (HarperCollins/William Morrow)
Ben H. Winters: World of Trouble (Quirk)

Best Fact Crime


Kevin Cook: Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime that Changed America (W.W. Norton)
Carl Hoffman: The Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller's Tragic Quest for Primitive Art (HarperCollins/William Morrow)
Lacy M. Johnson: The Other Side: A Memoir (Tin House)
William Mann: Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood (HarperCollins/Harper)
Harold Schechter: The Mad Sculptor: The Maniac, the Model, and the Murder that Shook the Nation (Amazon/New Harvest)

Best Critical/Biographical


Charles Brownson: The Figure of the Detective: A Literary History and Analysis (McFarland)
Jim Mancall: James Ellroy: A Companion to the Mystery Fiction (McFarland)
Robert Miklitsch: Kiss the Blood Off My Hands: Classic Film Noir (University of Illinois)
Francis M. Nevins: Judges & Justice & Lawyers & Law: Exploring the Legal Dimensions of Fiction and Film (Perfect Crime)
J. W. Ocker: Poe-Land: The Hallowed Haunts of Edgar Allan Poe (W.W. Norton/Countryman)

Best Short Story

Doug Allyn: "The Snow Angel," Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine (Dell Magazines)
John Floyd: "200 Feet," Strand Magazine (The Strand)
Gillian Flynn: "What Do You Do?," Rogues (Penguin Randomhouse/Bantam)
Dennis Lehane vs. Michael Connelly: "Red Eye," Faceoff (Simon & Schuster)
Brian Tobin: "Teddy," Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine (Dell Magazines)

Best Juvenile


Heather Bogel Frederick: Absolutely Truly (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers)
Stuart Gibbs: Space Case (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers)
Kate Milford: Greenglass House (Clarion/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers)
"Science Bob" Pflugfelder and Steve Hockensmith: Nick and Tesla's Super-Cyborg Gadget Glove (Quirk)
N. H. Senzai: Saving Kabul Corner (Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman)
Marcia Wells: Eddie Red, Undercover: Mystery on Museum Mile (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers)

Best Young Adult


Paolo Bacigalupi: The Doubt Factory (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)
Elle Cosimano: Nearly Gone (Penguin Young Readers Group/Kathy Dawson)
Lamar Giles: Fake ID (HarperCollins Children's Books/Amistad)
James Klise: The Art of Secrets (Algonquin Young Readers)
Blake Nelson: The Prince of Venice Beach (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)

Best Television Episode Teleplay

"The Empty Hearse," Sherlock, teleplay by Mark Gatiss (Hartswood Films/Masterpiece)
"Unfinished Business," Blue Bloods, teleplay by Siobhan Byrne O'Connor (CBS)
"Episode 1," Happy Valley, teleplay by Sally Wainwright (Netflix)
"Dream Baby Dream," The Killing, teleplay by Sean Whitesell (Netflix)
"Episode 6," The Game, teleplay by Toby Whithouse (BBC America)

The Simon & Schuster-Mary Higgins Clark Award (presented April 28, 2015)


Sharon Bolton: A Dark and Twisted Tide (Minotaur)
Jane Casey: The Stranger You Know (Minotaur)
Julia Dahl: Invisible City (Minotaur)
Julia Keller: Summer of the Dead (Minotaur)
Lori Rader-Day: The Black Hour (Prometheus/Seventh Street)

Robert L. Fish Memorial Award

Zoë Z. Dean: "Getaway Girl," Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine (Dell Magazines)

Grand Master

Lois Duncan
James Ellroy

Raven Awards

Ruth and Jon Jordan, Crimespree Magazine
Kathryn Kennison, Magna Cum Murder

Ellery Queen Award

Charles Ardai, Editor and Founder, Hard Case Crime

Note: For more information about the Edgars and the database of past years' nominees and winners, see the Edgar Awards website here.