Marooned On Mars

Marooned on Mars – Lester Del Rey; Paperback Library; 1967

Vintage Science Fiction Month

Marooned on Mars by Lester Del Rey was first published in 1952.   In various encyclopedias and listings, one finds this novel categorized as “juvenile” science fiction.  What that means, I think, is that this is basically a young adult novel (nowadays we call it YA).  However, I do not think that any of this is entirely locked-down, written-in-stone stuff.  Why is it called “juvenile”?  Because the main character is a young lad of 17/18 years old.  I guess, too, because there is not any cussing or wild sex scenes.  Some readers might suggest that the writing level is geared toward a younger audience.

Personally, I liked this novel for what it is.  I feel like when I was much, much younger, I read dozens of books similar to this one. It is somewhat hard to put my finger on what it is, but I can try.  The young main character, Chuck, is an example of the ambitious, curious, and well-raised young man one thinks of when one generalizes about 1950s youth.  He is helpful, good-hearted, and a little awkward.  He also has a lot of skills at his young age that I am not so sure youth of present time have.  He’s practically an expert in electrical work, radar/radio usage, welding, etc.  Simply put, if my spacecraft were hurtling toward Mars and needed serious repairs to the drive-control system, I don’t think I would, honestly, entrust the repairs to some teenager.

There’s not much I can really say about the novel without giving a whole lot of it away in spoilers.  Humans have colonized the moon.  Therefore, humans live on Earth and on the Moon – and a project has been developed in conjunction with both societies to make a trip to the planet Mars.  The Governor at Moon City wins a hard-fought battle to have someone from his colony be present on the trip.  Chuck, who meets many of the requirements, is selected.  The one requirement he does not meet is the lower limit age one.  They want a crew between 18 – 27 years of age.  Chuck is only 17.  So, in spite of all the things Chuck could bring to the team, he is replaced by another young man put forward by the Chinese delegation:  Lew Wong.

The ship is readied and Chuck is brooding and lamenting.  He was exceedingly excited to be headed to Mars, now he has to give his position to Lew.  Now, here is something neat about reading 1950s “juvenile” science fiction.  Even the youth seem bold and brave and not yellow cowards. They seem willing to explore and take on challenges and face risks.  This is an element of these sorts of novels that really keeps them worth reading.  That unabashed curiosity and bravery is always good to, at least, read about.

Anyway, Captain Miles Vance leads the ship to its takeoff from the Moon. But little does he know, there is a stowaway.  And we are led to believe that all the men in the crew rather expected to have a stowaway, but they simply couldn’t endorse this action officially.  Either way, Chuck is part of the crew now.

It isn’t quite a spoiler to say the ship/crew gets marooned on Mars.  So they get there and then they have to set about repairing the ship to leave right away.  This is where the novel lost two full stars in my rating.  What the heck was their plan?  How do you have winches and welders and stuff on this ship and you had no real plans for contingencies or maybe even what you were going to do once you got to Mars – if you had gotten there intact.  I mean, I feel the novel focuses only on the ship’s travel and gives no thought to why they are traveling.

I read this for Vintage Science Fiction month and also because I am spending a lot of time on Mars (my other read….).  Overall, I enjoyed this for what it was.  The middle is a little too slow, the writing is sufficient. A good example of 1950s stuff.  One thing totally worth reading is the little three page essay/introduction by the author.  It’s entitled “Tomorrow’s World” and it does explain the impetus for a lot of the science and psychological milieu in the novel.  It is a fun and interesting little tidbit.  Three stars for vintage-ness, comfort reading, and down-to-earth mellow writing.

3 stars

The Languages of Pao

The Languages of Pao – Jack Vance; ACE; 1958

The Languages of Pao is one of Jack Vance’s earlier works, published in 1958.  It is the third Vance novel that I have read, and probably the best so far.  I really enjoyed this novel and am going to give it a high rating.  However, I can see where some readers may not fancy this sort of novel.

This is science fiction for smart people.  In other words, it takes a bit of aptitude to read this and enjoy it for what it is.  If a reader comes to this novel thinking it is something else, they will be aggravated.  The Languages of Pao is not an action novel.  There are, really, only three characters in the novel.  Reader who are used to “growing up with” characters who reside in 10-tome epic fantasies, may find these characters underdeveloped.  I would disagree; they are just not rendered with tedious detail.  Finally, this novel only has the smallest amount of scientific detail.  So, readers who are used to high-tech, mecha stuff might be disappointed.

There is a concept that Vance utilizes in this novel that provides the overarching theme.  Wikipedia proudly proclaims this the linguistic Sapir–Whorf hypothesis.  This particular “hypothesis” was developed by Wilhelm von Humboldt, Franz Boas, and Edward Sapir.  I cannot speak for how familiar our author was regarding these linguistic theories.  I, frankly, am not too familiar with them, although I’ve run across the names of these fellows plenty; particularly in philosophy of language and anthropology.  Humboldt generally comes up in reference to political philosophy.

Anyway, you may be chomping at the bit for me to explain what this Sapir-Whorf concept is.  Well, I’m not going to.  Because that’s what Vance’s book does.  On the planet Pao with main character Beran Panasper.  Let me then, simply, boil this whole thing down to one question:   “What role does language (organic or artificial) play in a social group’s understanding of reality? In other words, how does it shape their lives, nation, and outlook?”

It is okay to admit that the above paragraphs bored you to tears and you have already decided this novel is not for you.  However, understand that Vance is dealing with that linguistic question by working in the science fiction genre.  So, Vance selects three main facets of society (represented by the Paonese, the Breakness, and the Brumbos) to cause havoc on the planet Pao.  All of this gets situated within the political scheming/intrigue of the ambitious characters.  It is like Dune – without all of the sandworms, blue-eyes, and crazy witches.  But nevertheless, I see a lot of parallels between the two novels.  And the “villain” is not really a bad guy from all perspectives.  Plus, he’s the one that comes with the neat “modifications” – (surgical enhancements to his person).

I love Vance’s use of vocabulary.  I appreciate how he works with a linguistic concept without making his novel overlong or bludgeoning the reader (Mieville, looking at you, son).  I neither loved nor hated the characters, but I was interested to see what happened.  And maybe this is not the most exciting read in science fiction, but it surely is one of the more intelligent and well-written.  The only complaint is that it seems set up too artificially, almost as a too-carefully controlled experiment.  But on the other hand, what author doesn’t do this?

5 stars

It Walks By Night

It Walks By Night – John Dickson Carr; Avon

It Walks by Night was first published in 1930 by John Dickson Carr (1906 – 1977).  Carr also wrote under a number of pen names including Carter Dickson.  This novel is likely one of his first (if not his first) published novels.  It is also the first in the novel series starring detective/magistrate Henri Bencolin.

I read this novel in the end of October and beginning of November while traveling.  This means it saw use in the car and in hotel rooms.  Strangely, it was a fast read – but still took too long for its mere 176 pages.  That’s my copy in the picture – the Avon 1970 edition.  Avon published a number of mystery/thrillers in this same cover design (which I think is hideous).

My first impression after reading this novel is that it is such an oddly written novel.  At several points I felt that it was not a very good novel.  However, there are other parts where the writing is really quite impressive.  So, I guess if this is such an early work by Carr, one hopes he improved.  Not that this is a bad novel – but there are sections that are not where one wishes they were.

This is a locked-room mystery, although I did not love the resolution.  The setup up is quite interesting.  The story is told from the perspective of Jeff Marle (though you would miss this name if you were not specifically watching for it).  For some reason, Henri Bencolin decides to have an audience to “help him” solve the murder.  So, we are just stuffed with a few characters for the sake of characters. (Dr. Hugo Grafenstein is one such.)  The Duc de Saligny has been murdered in a “locked-room” at a nightclub.

I say this is an odd, odd little book for a number of reasons.  One, I feel Bencolin is patterned a little on Sherlock and Poirot (aren’t they all?) but we really do not know much about him.  In fact, though he’s the mastermind and brilliant detective, he mainly feels like a supporting character.  Two, there are long chapters which involve the romantic (not erotic) evenings of Marle.  And perhaps this is to setup a false lead for the reader, or maybe for the reader to get to know Marle.  Either way, it seems just very odd.  In fact a number of characters in this story are just odd.  If you read about this story in the news, it would definitely be one of those “wow, weird things go on in our town” news items.

Marle is prone to mentally breaking into poetry or song when the moment strikes him.  It is somewhat disjointed when it happens.  Again, is this to show that Marle is a cultured chap?  Or is he really suffering A.D.D. or what?  Anyway, I did not really know the referent for most of these poems/songs.  However, the references to Poe I managed to catch! See, I’m not senile, yet!

But there are whole passages where Carr displays that rare, old-fashioned classic style of writing that blends beauty and wit.  And these are really good passages.  Carr cannot consistently keep this up, though, and there are also long sections which are not expertly written. At one point it seemed we had totally forgotten the actual murder and had moved into a different storyline. Also, it ends really abruptly and oddly, too.  Certainly not a drawn out ending.

In the words of Marle, there is a particularly fun line in chapter ten:

Now the moment anybody mentions the word “Victorian,”  you can take it for granted that the conversation is going to become artificial, and that the person who says it is avoiding all pretensions to frank discourse.

Surprising lines like that make this book easier to read than maybe it should be.  It is sometimes confusing (lots of characters) and sometimes tedious (why did we spend three chapters with this?), but it does have a unique feel and a dose of charm that make it worthwhile.  I would not recommend this novel for everyone.  I think there are “better” mysteries out there.  However, if you want to read something that is older and classic, without reading Agatha, then this is one for you.  I do intend to read more by this author, though he’s a bit of a pain to find around.

3 stars

Death of a Dissident

Death of a Dissident – Stuart M. Kaminsky; Ivy Books; 1989

Today I finished Death of a Dissident by Stuart M. Kaminsky (1934 – 2009) .  This is the first book that I have read by Kaminsky.  I started purchasing the Kaminsky novels in the Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov series that I find at cheap prices.  Unfortunately, I do not have book two.  Death of a Dissident was first published in 1981, but I read the 1989 edition.  I picked up my copy used for $2.

I was not sure what to expect from this novel.  I was wary of trying out a new author.  I generally enjoy cozy mysteries, but am leery of bloody, crazed murderers (as you should be, too).  I was okay with the Michael Connelly novel I read, I really enjoy Agatha Christie, and I have been pleased with the few other light mysteries that I have read in the past.  I was worried, though, that this novel might be a bit too gory or dark.  That is generally one of the main reasons I am nervous about reading mysteries.  I do not like reading thriller/mysteries which are filled with depravity and gore.  Another reason I was wary was that I worried the background and setting of this novel might feel really dated.  Or that the author would try to over-write the whole USSR background.

Luckily, my fears were unfounded.  I actually really liked this novel and read it fairly quickly.  The best part of the novel is that Kaminsky did not overwrite the “dismal, politically-charged” USSR setting.  It is actually written really well and gives a really good insight into Kaminsky’s interpretation of the USSR.  The characters were also really well done, I think.  Nothing massively in-depth, but I came to like all of them.  They are all interesting and make the novel much better than it would be with flat or hideous characters.  The subtle and not-so-subtle political awkwardness of the police force dealing with the political structure made for a unique and interesting setting.

Rostnikov was worried about the girl, true, but he was also worried about how he might explain the destruction of the automobile.  His body and that of the driver could be repaired by doctors.  Doctors in Moscow were good and there would be no cost.  But to repair an automobile. Ah, thought Rostnikov, that may be much more difficult.  (Chapter Twelve)

The villain was a bit twisted, to be honest.  There was a scene toward the end of the book where I was worried things were going to cross that line into “too graphic and gory” for me to want to read.  But the whole thing turned out okay and Kaminsky did not cross the line-of-yucky.   The main character, Porfiry Rostnikov, is a big hit, I think.  He is a fairly good Russian imitation of a war-hardened hard-boiled detective.  He is patient and brooding, just as one would expect.  But he also is politically savvy – although he is not completely subservient and whipped by the political edifice.   I like the supporting characters, too, particularly Emil Karpo.  Karpo is really fun and awesome – I am glad I met this character.

This is the sort of book you want to see as a movie – but done well, not ruined by some ridiculous Hollywood interpretation.  I am giving it four stars for the writing style (dry-humor and subtle) and for the characters.  The background of the USSR is worthy and should interest those with a fondness for Russia.

Moscow begins work at five in the morning.  The few hours before are for the criminals, the police, taxi drivers, government officials at parties, and party officials working on government.   (Chapter Two)

4 stars

The Crossroads of Time

The Crossroads of Time – Andre Norton; ACE 1980

This morning I finished The Crossroads of Time by Andre Norton (1912 – 2005).  It was originally published in 1956.  The edition that I read is the ACE 1980 version.

Chapter one is a really good example of how to get the reader engaged in a book straightaway.  Instead of giving us a long lead-up or background, we meet the main character in a hotel room. By page two, we meet a gunman, and by page three the main character is a bit of a hero.  Hello, Blake Walker – your life is about to change. Thanks for rescuing Agent Kittson.

Anyway, after reading the first chapter, I basically knew that I would be in for a penny, in for a pound, so to speak. Blake Walker is thrust, by his having been a bit of a hero in the hotel hallway, into a new paradigm in which he learns that travel between his world and parallel worlds is possible.  He learns that there are criminals who are intent on traveling betwixt worlds in order to cause mayhem and distort those worlds’ natural progression of history.  Blake also learns that there are psi’s – persons who have advanced mental capabilities such as telepathy and telekinesis, etc.  In fact, Blake may actually be a psi.  So much for going to art school. . . .

Overall the writing is fast-paced and the story tends to feel like an action thriller.  There is some science fiction in here – but only as a background skeleton to the story itself.  For example, not a whole lot is detailed out on how/why some of these scientific items operate.  They just do.

Unfortunately, there are some flaws in the book.  For example, chapter four.  I have no idea what happens in that chapter – and I read it thrice.  I just could not figure out what happened. Sometimes, writing “action” scenes is tricky.  At least comic book writers have help from their artists to help show you what is going on.  Another thing, the title…. well, since this is not time travel (Cp. Quantum Leap), but rather traveling laterally across a variety of parallel worlds, I feel that the title is misleading.  It is not the crossroads of time.  Finally, other than Blake and Kittson, the other characters kind of blend together and are not really all that distinct or memorable.  I know this is a short-action piece, but maybe a little more distinction between characters would have helped the novel not seem so jumbled at points.

In any case, I am glad I read this.  I had fun.  It was a decent read.  But I wish it were a little bit better.  As I understand it, there is something of a “sequel” as well, though I do not own it.  A good read for someone who just needs a little science fiction and does not want to invest too much into a story.  I admit, I’m probably being a little bit harsh with this one.

2 stars

Etiquette & Espionage

Etiquette & Espionage – Gail Carriger; 2013

Continuing in my efforts to read “fun/light” things, I finished Gail Carriger’s Etiquette & Espionage.  This is a young-adult novel published in early 2013.  It is the first novel in the Finishing School series. Overall, I really think the concept is good.  I like the idea of a “finishing school” that is actually an espionage school – yet does not neglect the etiquette part of the schooling.  I think that Carriger is a witty and insightful author – and more than anything, she hands-down knows her subject and background. 

Carriger is the pen-name of Tofa Borregaard.  She has several academic degrees and writes novels.  She also seems to dress the part – as she dabbles in history and fashion of the (what seems to be) Victorian era.  In all cases, she has a charming smile and seems to do well with fans. I read the first novel in her first series (Parasol Protectorate) and enjoyed it.  I found it humorous and entertaining. 

I like the main character in Etiquette & Espionage.  I also like the supporting characters.  There’s a good variety of different characters which suit the storyline.  Carriger even includes some of the vampire/werewolf items which now seem mandatory in all young adult books.  Thankfully, these characters are not written in the same way as in other books.  The focus is on the humans and their adventures.  Also, no one sparkled (except a young lass at the school named Dimity, who really loves jewelry).

The characters are charming.  The story starts off wonderfully, immediately capturing the reader’s interest.  The main character, Sophronia Temminnick, is an astute and sharp character.  She is a hassle to her socialite family, and her mother is pleased that a finishing school is interested in taking Sophronia off of her hands and perhaps turning her into a calm and reasonable young woman.  Sophronia, of course, is not completely thrilled with the idea of finishing school, but she is not exactly overwhelmed with freedom and fun at home. 

Naturally, when Sophronia arrives at the finishing school she does not fit in.  She is too rugged and wild.  But her smarts get her through and she manages to win over the hearts of several of the other girls at the school.  As well as make a few enemies. And, as the storyline progresses, Sophronia learns to enjoy the espionage she is studying and she also is gradually learning social graces and etiquette, as well.

All of that is very fine and good.  However, the whole finishing school is a dirigible that floats over Dartmoor.  There are mechanimals – steam-powered animals and mechmaids and mechbutlers – which are steam-powered robots that clean and work on board the dirigible.  I know that this series is set in the same overall world as the Parasol Protectorate.  So, I supposed it must include a variety of the same things.  But, honestly, I feel like the Steampunk stuff actually did not help the story.  I, frankly, would have enjoyed the concept if we left out most, if not all, of the steampunk stuff.  Maybe that’s just because I am a cantankerous philosopher, but I still think the idea is good – but it was slightly overworked for this novel.

Just a mention of the cover – I like it.  It does look “girly,” but it also has an element to it that makes you wonder what this book is about. I bet I will be reading the second installment when that is released.

3 stars

The Big Four

The Big Four – Agatha Christie; Berkley

The Big Four is Agatha Christie’s fifth Hercule Poirot book, fourth novel.  I enjoyed it, Poirot was a lot of fun, and it was good to have Hastings back in the story.  It was originally published in 1927 and some of the language is not as politically-correct, as we say nowadays, as one would think.  Christie was, obviously, a spunky and sharp-witted woman.

The Big Four is perfect for people who are new to Poirot, I think, and don’t really enjoy cozy mysteries.  This is really a mystery/thriller and really seems a prime candidate for some film company to use as a summer blockbuster.  Adjust a few things, get a couple solid actors, and shazam! a movie.   The storyline speeds along much quicker in this novel than in the previous ones and there are more physical confrontations.  In the previous novels, Poirot and Hastings do not really deal with situations in which they are in true physical danger.  Generally, they are involved in intellectual battles.

The Big Four is actually an international group of anarchist criminals.  There are four and we are to believe that they have a hand in many worldwide occurrences.  In fact, today, we would call them a terrorist cell.  Christie, I feel, was trying out Poirot on a big stage – international events and crimes that affect the world, not just some small UK village.  I kind of want to ask Christie:  “So, how do you feel about Poirot and Hastings on this level?”  I think Poirot is much more charming on a smaller scale, but I do want to say that this story seems to make Poirot even more unbelievably impressive.

At points, the reader will truly feel that Christie is pulling a bit too much from Doyle’s Watson, Sherlock, Moriarty, Irene setup.  And I’m okay with it.  Other readers may want to complain about using a recycled idea.   Another small complaint:  Hastings rushed off to Argentina, but in this novel it seems like he is in England with Poirot (and for no other reason than hanging out with Poirot) for at least two years.  I mean, what was all the googly-eyed romance about his wife about if he can take off to England for years?  This was a bit odd.  On the other hand, yeah, we missed Hastings, so who cares about his silly wife in South America?

I probably should give this novel 3 stars.  However, I am giving it 4.  I cannot help myself… I still love Poirot and Agatha is a Dame Commander, so who am I to criticize?  I think I will try to cast this movie in my head this evening. Should be a fun supper activity.  And thinking about a book after the last page is done good and read is a good sign!

(Not to put too fine a point on it, but OF COURSE I have to give this FOUR stars!)

4 stars

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – Agatha Christie; Pocket 1973

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is Agatha Christie’s fourth Hercule Poirot book, third novel.  It was published in 1926 and it is the third Agatha Christie book I have read.  It is actually one of Christie’s most well-known books, particularly because of the twist in the method of telling the story – which, if you have not read the book, do not read about it – but go ahead and read the actual novel.  I would tell you – but it would wreck it.  So, this review will have to seem a bit ambiguous.

I kept myself innocent of knowledge about the novel and therefore, I was duly surprised and impressed by the famous “twist.”  Also, I give it five stars because of the twist and the continuous wit throughout the novel.  I really enjoyed the novel.  It’s almost a “locked room murder.” Hastings is alluded to, but we learn he has gone off to the Argentine.  Taking his place is the narrator of the story, Dr. Sheppard.

Poirot is really well-developed in this novel.  Much more so than in The Mysterious Affair at Styles and The Murder on the Links.  Christie gives a more complete picture of Poirot – and he is slightly less frustrating than in the previous two novels.  He is witty, amusing, and solves the mystery with panache.  How can you not love Poirot?

This novel has so much wit in it. Dry humor. Sarcastic humor.  Amusing characters.  I absolutely love the characters of Dr. Sheppard and his sister.  Their interactions are wonderful.  Also, I really think Christie describes Dr. Sheppard’s sister, Caroline, with such insight and perfection that Christie must have known a person in real life such as Caroline.  And don’t we all?  After all, one thing that I do like about these characters in this novel is that I feel I know someone like each of them.  To include the tedious Mrs. Ackroyd.

One of the many amusing lines, from chapter 14:

“The English people, they have a mania for the fresh air,” declared Poirot. “The big air, it is all very well outside, where it belongs.  Why admit it to the house?”

I really chuckled at this because Poirot is such a stubborn and enigmatic character – plus, Christie loves using him to represent stereotypes of the French (Belgian) and English.  She’s poking fun at all of us and it is a real hoot.

I recommend this novel for everyone .  Sure, even if you are more shrewd than I and figure out the twist long before the ending, I think you will still enjoy the wit and setup in the novel.  The characters, for sure, are worthy.  If you are like me, and enjoying being surprised by the twists and turns of detective novels, you’ll like this one – it is a classic one that influenced the detective novel henceforth.

5 stars

The Mummy, The Will and the Crypt

The Mummy, the Will, and the Crypt – John Bellairs; Puffin, 1996

I re-read this novel this month. I had been looking for it (new and used) for a long time – I finally found it at Mr. K’s in Charleston, SC for $1.50.  I really cannot emphasize what a difficult time it was locating this book.  I think it was out of print for awhile? I am surprised they did not charge at least $3 for it.  It was originally published in 1983, but the copy I read is the 1996 edition.   I have a bit of a history with this book. I attempted to read it once when I was a small person.  But I grew bored with it and did not get far into it.  A year or so later, I picked it up again and found it gripping and intense and scary.  I remembered it a few years ago and started hunting for it.

The Mummy, the Will, and the Crypt is the second in the Johnny Dixon series of novels written by John Bellairs (1938 – 1991).  I have never read the first, but it is quite famous.  I own the next in the Johnny Dixon series and I have never read that one. I intend to do so once I make a bit more headway into my to-be-read-mountain.

Is this a “kid’s” novel? I suppose, technically, it is.  It’s to be found in the kid’s section, the size and language are accessible to most kids, and the main character is a young boy.  However, it is written in the Gothic-style that Bellairs is known for.  Reading along, you do feel that Bellairs was influenced by Lovecraft.  I find Lovecraftian influences everywhere, by the way.

This novel is a bit somber.  The young main character is shy, anxious, and intense.  He’s a good kid that plays chess, is in the Boy Scouts, and has no friends his own age.  His best friend is a retired ex-military professor who lives in the house across the street from Johnny’s grandparents. Johnny lives with his grandparents because his mother passed away and his father is overseas in the Korean War.  So, the novel, though published in the 1980s seems to be set in the 1950s.

The Mummy, the Will, and the Crypt – John Bellairs; Bantam 1983

There are several elements that are great about this novel.  The first is the Lovecraftian-horror-Gothic style.  I love it.  And nowadays children are not supposed to read such things.  Their “literature” is sanitized and factory-produced.  Bellairs’ novels have this macabre feeling to them that is just not “okay” with the yuppie-parenting of today.  I don’t have any offspring, but if I did, I would definitely have this on their bookshelves.  It is not grossly horrific.  It is not filthy.  It’s just creepy and Lovecraftian and excellent for rainy autumn nights.

The second element which I absolutely love (and which also makes the novel “unacceptable” for children) is the element of religion.  Bellairs is a graduate of Notre Dame and University of Chicago.  He was most likely Roman Catholic.  And Johnny Dixon is too.  And I absolutely approve of the way religion is written in this novel.  This is not a novel about religion – and Bellairs does not make it into one.  However, he does not write a sanitized “religion doesn’t exist in the world” novel, either.  He doesn’t preach or turn the novel into some pseudo-morality tale soggy and dripping with Bible interpretations.  Bellairs writes it all perfectly.  Johnny is a Roman Catholic. Let’s not make that into a thing.  It is what it is.  There are Roman Catholics in the world and Johnny is one of them. Not really anything remarkable about this.  And the novel does not make a big deal of it – but you know when Johnny is about to enter the Crypt that he’s making the Sign of the Cross.

The main character is so interesting and the reader loves empathizing with the kid. He’s an honest kid – neither impossibly awesome, nor pathetically lame.  He’s real, which might be why he is so relate-able.  Authors need to learn how to write like Bellairs – everything so smooth and yet, so meaningful.  Macabre and not gross.  Honest, but yet a good yarn. I hear this is not really Bellairs greatest work – I cannot wait to read more and really be wow-ed by J. Bellairs.

4 stars

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie – A. Bradley; Bantam, 2009

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie was published in 2009. It was written by Alan Bradley (b. 1938), a Canadian author.  The novel won an Agatha Award and a Barry Award among others.  The copy that I read has traveled around the world.  It was purchased from Amazon, traveled to NYC, to Egypt, and back again. It went to Charlotte, NC and to Charleston, SC. By the time it got into my paws, it looked well-enjoyed.  I read it all in about four days.

I really liked the main character of the novel.  She is witty, charming, and intelligent.  The fact that she is a young girl (11 years old) is kind of interesting, because I would not have thought to like the character so much.  She is too intelligent for her age. Really, no 11 year olds are that intelligent.  It works in this novel, though, because this is just a light fiction mystery and I am not demanding much from it.

The storyline is only average.  A murder occurs at the Buckshaw property.  The young main character, Flavia de Luce, sets about to solve the mystery – at first because she is intrigued, then later to clear her father of charges.  Flavia is incredibly resourceful and independent and is contrasted with her older sisters, Ophelia and Daphne.  Their mother, Harriet, died and the girls live at Buckshaw without a whole lot of parental interference.  Flavia uses her freedom to do scientific studies or to torment her sisters.  The murder gives her a chance to utilize all of her knowledge and skill and, as I think, saves her from some of the boredom she must feel at Buckshaw.

The little British village they live in is typical and predictable.  There are nosy old women, gossips, puttering inn-keepers, etc.  There are also a handful of teenagers who fall in and out of love with each other.  The local church is the parish home to all of the residents and Flavia takes us on a tour to all of the points of interest in the village.   The novel takes place in 1950 – and the country is still healing and rebuilding from the war efforts.  Not just the land and infrastructure, of course, but also the psychologies of the inhabitants.

There are a lot of witty moments and neat scenes in the novel.  One of my favorites was on page 49 where Flavia is rebelling against the cook’s seed biscuits:

Seed biscuits and milk!  I hated Mrs. Mullet’s seed biscuits the way Saint Paul hated sin.  Perhaps even more so.  I wanted to clamber up onto the table, and with a sausage on the end of a fork as my scepter, shout in my best Laurence Olivier voice, “Will no one rid us of this turbulent pastry cook?”

Overall, I think that Bradley has written a really good novel.  The main character is awesome, but the other characters are a little bit flat.  I like how accurately, smoothly, and insightful Bradley worked in the setting and time period.  This is done so well, it is difficult to imagine that the author did not grow up in Bishops Lacey in 1950 and that this is his first novel.  The plot is not great.  It is sufficient.  There are a lot of reasons to recommend this novel and I think it has reached a large audience.  I will definitely be trying to read the rest of the series and I am thrilled that there are several more books! Also, I am fond of how all of these colorful covers will look together on my bookshelves.

4 stars

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