A Study in Scarlet Women by Sherry Thomas

Book – What’s a young woman to do when she’s possessed by a singularly brilliant mind and a distinct disdain for social conventions? If the young woman in question is Charlotte Holmes, main character of Sherry Thomas’ A Study in Scarlet Women, the answer to that question is; deliberately be caught behaving scandalously to avoid being forced to marry, move in with former actress and well-to-do widow Mrs. Joanna Watson, and set up a private detective agency under the fake name “Sherlock Holmes.” After all, no one in Victorian London would come to a lady consulting detective.

A Study in Scarlet Women is both a character study and mystery novel. However, as a mystery, the pace moves fairly slowly at first. Readers should be aware that for the first third of the story the actual murder mystery takes a back seat to character development. But with characters like these, it’s worth waiting for the plot to pick up. Thomas does an excellent job exploring the many ways Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and John Watson would be very different characters if they’d been born and raised as middle class women in an extremely male dominated society, inured in all the strict social guidelines that women were expected to abide by. This extra care and consideration makes for three dimensional characters that practically leap off of the page. And when the mystery plot does take off, watch out. It becomes hard to put the book down as Thomas throws misdirections and surprise twists at the reader, concluding in a startling and highly enjoyable finish. Readers who enjoy Sherlock Holmes adaptations and books that focus on strong character development should definitely check out A Study in Scarlet Women, by Sherry Thomas.

The Cadfael Chronicles by Ellis Peters

Books – I’ve said before that I don’t particularly care for cozy mysteries, but that’s not really true. When summer hits, when it’s too hot to think and I miss those lazy student summers when I didn’t have to do anything, when I wish for a simpler life than the one I have now, I reach for the Cadfael Chronicles.

Technically they’re mystery novels – usually someone dies, sometimes something is stolen, and Brother Cadfael, who was a Crusader before he became a monk, solves the mystery. He also gets the besotted young people together, or at least removes any impediments to their marriage; acts as godfather to his best friend’s son; trains apprentices to work in his gardens; and makes silent disparaging remarks about Brother Jerome, who desperately wants to be better than everyone else. Like modern cozies, the Cadfael series is about wish fulfillment, but instead of the dream of owning a bakery or a tea shop, it’s the dream of living a quiet, well-regulated life in a monastery.

Peters chose an interesting historical period for the series, too – the Anarchy, a civil war in England and Normandy in the mid-twelfth century resulting from a crisis of succession. It’s pretty obscure, as history goes, which puts most of us in the same position as the characters, unsure about what’s going to happen next and exactly how the war is going. But the war is a background feature, for the most part, compared to the small details of medieval life – not just in the cloister, but in the surrounding town.

 

The Trouble With Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon

Book – The summer of 1976 is the hottest in recent memory, and Mrs. Creasy has disappeared from the Avenue.  Grace and Tillie, both aged ten, are determined to get to the bottom of the case, but secrets run deep in their little suburb, and the more they investigate the mystery, the further they find themselves drawn into their community’s shared and troubling past–all starting with the long-ago disappearance of a little girl.

The Trouble With Goats and Sheep is a hard book to categorize; it doesn’t really fit well into any type of mystery I know.  It doesn’t feature much actual detective work, and while we the readers learn the full story of What Happened through flashbacks, most of the characters do not.  As such, The Trouble With Goats and Sheep might better be considered as a work of literary fiction or coming-of-age story with mystery elements.

I think that my own vague feeling of letdown at the end of the book was a result of trying to force it to fit a more traditional mystery mold, but the fact that I made it to the end at all is evidence of its good points.  The author’s voice is compelling, and the novel’s themes are deep, exploring community, memory, scapegoating and the ways that fear and guilt can twist human behavior.  As a fan of ensemble stories, I enjoyed the large cast of complex and not-always-likeable characters.  As a whole, I found it a sufficiently intriguing debut novel to have hope for the author’s sophomore outing.

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti

Book – Samuel Hawley and his daughter, Loo, are always on the move. Each time they settle into a new place, Hawley sets up a shrine in their bathroom to honor to his late wife, who drowned when Loo was a baby. Finally, when Loo is a teenager, Hawley decides to try to give her a normal life at his wife’s seaside hometown in Massachusetts. When Hawley competes in the local Greasy Pole Contest, he takes off his shirt to reveal a body riddled with scars from bullet holes. As Hawley and Loo’s latest stop becomes “home,” Hawley reflects on his past and the incidents that led to his scars. Loo begins to reach out to a few of the people in the town and as she matures, she learns about the secrets that bind her and her father. This book is a unique look at family bonds, guilt, sacrifice and the impact of our decisions and how they can ripple through generations.

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew Sullivan

Book – Lydia is ending her evening shift at the Bright Ideas Bookstore when she discovers the body of Joey Molina hanging from a ceiling beam in the upper level. Joey had been one of the BookFrogs – lonely, lost customers who regularly frequented the shop. Lydia had been kind to Joey, but is surprised to learn that he has bequeathed his few possessions to her. When Lydia claims them, she realizes that he has left clues for her to decipher that may lead to the reason for his suicide. As Lydia learns about Joey’s brief and tragic life, she also uncovers truths about her own life and the past she tried to leave behind. I enjoyed following the clues and watching Lydia’s views shift as she examines the events of her childhood. Who can she really trust? This book was an entertaining and clever read.

Switching Places with Fido: Stories About Swapping Bodies with the Dog

Books Imagine waking up to find that your hands have become paws in the night.  You jump off the bed (on four legs!), look in the mirror and see a furry, wet-nosed face staring back at you.  But then, you turn around and see yourself, your human self, looking just as confused as you.  Somehow, you and your dog have swapped bodies!  Dog Days by Elsa Watson and The Dog in the Freezer by Harry Mazer (available through Interlibrary Loan) explore the bizarreness of  finding yourself stuck in the body of your furry best friend, making for some fun, quirky reads.

In Elsa Watson’s Dog Days, we meet struggling café owner Jessica Sheldon, who is going through a ruff time. Elsa holds the famed title of “number one dog hater” after an unfortunate incident in which she may have screamed at two unsuspecting pups.  “Woofinstock,” the towns annual dog-themed festival, is Jessica’s chance to redeem herself, and her café.  Jessica is in way over her head after volunteering for the festival, and taking in a stray dog named Zoe was never part of the plan. Things get even worse when Zoe and Jessica magically happen to swap forms.  While Zoe is ecstatic that she finally has the power to take any food she likes, Jessica is terrified imagining what her body double will do next!

The Dog in the Freezer is a compilation of three novellas, each tail showcasing the strong bound between a boy and his dog.  (Though we don’t have a copy of this novel at our library, you can request it through Interlibrary Loan).  This was one of my favorite’s growing up.  The body-swapping story is titled “My Life As a Boy,” about a hghschooler named Gregory and his genius dog Einstein.  Gregory and Einstein just wake up one day, on the day of Gregory’s very important basketball game, to find they have switched places!  Will Einstein be able to take Gregory’s place in the big game?  With tons of humor, and a touch of suspense, this book really is the fleas knees.

 

 

 

Modern Children’s Classics to (Re)Visit Soon

Books – Revisiting childhood favorites may be the definition of comfort reading.  Some children’s books inspire a ‘what was I thinking?’ response when revisited later in life, but some have enough depth to genuinely repay a fresh, or first, look from a grown-up perspective.  The following are four children’s classics which I find myself rereading often–not just for nostalgia, but because their messages still resonate and they still make me think even as an adult.  (They’re all from the mid-20th century, because I needed some limit or this list would be five miles long).  It goes without saying that they’re still great choices for today’s kids, too!

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg

Twelve-year-old Claudia Kincaid has a stiflingly samey middle-class upbringing and an indefatigable independent streak.  Accompanied by her younger brother Jamie, mostly because she needs the financial security of his scrupulously hoarded allowances, Claudia runs away from home to an astonishing destination: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The description of Claudia and Jamie’s escapades in the Museum will never fail to be delightful, but re-reading now, what sticks with me is the depth of the story’s messages about emotional resilience and how life’s challenges teach us who we are.

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

I think it’s a disservice to this fantastic mystery to call it a children’s book–and I say that despite thinking that children’s books are for everyone, and despite the fact that it’s a beloved Newbery winner.  The mystery at its core is deliciously twisty, but what’s striking about this story is the size and breadth of its beautifully-drawn cast.  You could cut out the mystery element entirely and still have a fascinating story about strong personalities thrown together through the simple circumstance of apartment living, not unlike Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street series for adults.

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

I may be one of the two people in the world who loves the movie version of The Phantom Tollbooth, but I still really wish it had been better, because the book deserves the universal fame of better-adapted works like The Wizard of Oz.  All the classic portal fantasy elements are there: Milo receives a mysterious package in the mail and is drawn through it into a whimsical nonsense world that needs his help.  The Phantom Tollbooth is, sort of, a traditional good-versus-evil story, but it stands out because it’s actually less about outright wickedness and more about the perils of inaction: boredom, not heroism, sets Milo off on his adventure, and instead of moustache-twirling villains he faces enemies like the “Terrible Trivium”, the ultimate waster of time. Juster’s is a deeper, more complex, more contemporary and relevant kind of morality than usual in children’s fantasy, one that could easily be marketed as ‘fractured’ fairy tale were it not so full of genuine heart.

The Giver by Lois Lowry

If The Hunger Games is YA lit’s answer to 1984, then The Giver is its Brave New World.  I’m as much of a Katniss fan as the next Youth Services librarian, but The Giver did YA dystopia long before, and arguably better.  It’s a profoundly political story about every citizen’s complicity in government actions and the high price we pay for a life without discomfort, and it’s as touching, as painful and as thought-provoking now as ever.

 

 

 

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

Book – My favorite kinds of mysteries are the ones that play games with your expectations – things like The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – so I was intrigued by the description of Anthony Horowitz’s new novel. It’s a murder mystery inside a murder mystery: Alan Conway, author of the bestselling Atticus Pünd series of whodunnits, committed suicide just after turning in his latest manuscript. Except that the manuscript is missing the last chapter, and Susan Ryeland, one of his editors, thinks he didn’t commit suicide at all. The first half of the book is Magpie Murders, the final Atticus Pünd novel; the second half is Susan’s investigation into Conway’s death. (Don’t worry; you do get to read the final chapter in the end.)

Horowitz is a bestselling author and screenwriter in the UK – he’s a co-creater of the longrunning TV show Midsomer Murders – but despite his two excellent Sherlock Holmes novels, he’s not as well known here. He does a terrific job with both mysteries in Magpie Murders, Pünd’s classic whodunnit set in the 1950s and Susan’s modern, genre-savvy investigation in the modern day. Readers who love the puzzle aspect of mysteries but who are turned off by the violence and heavy reliance on forensics in modern thrillers will love this unique novel.

Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett

Book – Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett has the most adorable bunny cover I have ever seen by far. But whilst one might expect to find a cute story of an adorable rabbit beneath this cover, we are instead met by death, mourning, and sleepwalking. The back synopsis was insane; there was such an onslaught of information I wasn’t sure I’d be able to follow everything going on when I actually started reading.

Elvis is 11 years old, and her mother has just committed suicide, or so everyone says.  Elvis is skeptical, and thinks something more sinister may be afoot in her mother’s death.  In the wake of her mother’s passing, Elvis is forced to undergo weekly sessions with the school counseling, and begins tracking her journey through the nine stages of grief. Her father mourns by dressing up in her mother’s clothes and wearing her lipstick. Elvis’s older sister, Lizzie unfortunately inherited her mother’s sleepwalking, and it’s quickly growing out of control. In the midst of trying to save her sister from meeting the same ghastly fate of her mother, Elvis works furiously on her mother’s unfinished memoir, and searches for answers into her death.

There is so much going on in this story; it’s dark, a  fair bit depressing, and very quirky. The sleepwalking was a huge aspect of the story, and I was so fascinated by it. Though it wasn’t the sweet story I anticipated from a glance at the cover, this book exceeded my expectations.

My Favorite Thing is Monsters: Book One by Emil Ferris

Graphic novel – Set in Chicago in the 60s, My Favorite Thing is Monsters is the semi-autobiographical story of Karen, a ten-year-old girl who pictures (and draws) herself as a werewolf. After her upstairs neighbor dies mysteriously, her death officially labeled a suicide, Karen takes it on herself to investigate, learning about her lovely neighbor’s history as a Holocaust survivor, her older brother Deeze’s many and varied relationships with women, and just exactly how far her monster mask will take her. Meanwhile, her mother is dying of cancer, Martin Luther King, Jr. has just been killed, and Karen is probably in love with her best friend.

This is an incredible story, richly layered, full of wonderful, fully-realized characters. Despite the youth of the narrator, there are a lot of heavy themes, but they are rendered with their full complexity intact. And the art is astounding – printed on paper lined like a spiral notebook, the sketchy pencil drawings are absolutely gorgeous, whether Ferris is rendering Deeze’s many weary ex-girlfriends or Karen’s favorite works from the Art Institute. The only unfortunate thing? It ends on a cliffhanger, and Book Two doesn’t come out until next year.