As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust: A Flavia de Luce Novel

51Byag2ZQwL._SX200_She’s baaack…  When Flavia de Luce was shipped off to boarding school in Canada at the end of Alan Bradley’s last installment of the precocious detective, I sadly thought the series was over.  Happily, Flavia returns in As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust, with a charred and mummified body falling from the chimney in her dorm room at Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy before she has a chance to settle in.

With Flavia’s penchant for chemistry, as she concocts imaginary ways to eliminate annoying characters, she rivals Agatha Christie for powerful and effective ways to murder.  You wouldn’t want Flavia for an enemy.  Bradley’s tongue-in-cheek humor appeals to adults; where else can you be a twelve year-old again, planning revenge for perceived slights.

But the discovery of the murder, and the journey to whodunit drives the plot with suspects and motives.  Flavia always uncovers key clues, and following her to the final reveal through several plot twists is fun.  What a relief to know she will continue to entertain readers as she solves unlikely murders.

For more reviews of Flavia de Luce novels, start with The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls

9781594486401_custom-553d89074bec5dc575e0e9f98f3dc0fdd950a14f-s2The suspense is delicious in Anton DiSclafani’s coming of age tale The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls.  Thea Atwell has been sent away from the family’s Florida orange groves to a girls’ boarding school in the Appalachian hills because of a scandal  that stays secret until the reader is hooked and well into the middle of the book – no spoilers here.

The story moves back and forth from fifteen year old Thea’s new life among a group of girls – the horsey set at an exclusive boarding school – and her old bucolic life with her twin brother Sam, her pony Sasi, and her poor relation, cousin Georgie.  As Thea tries to adjust to her new surroundings among more girls her age than she has ever seen (she’s been home-schooled by her father), DiSclafani teases the reader with flashbacks to a gentler time back on the farm – before teenage hormones took over her life.

DiSclafani sets the story just as the Great Depression begins to affect all those wealthy family with daughters in boarding schools.  As the economy worsens, so do the lives around Thea: her uncle loses his house to foreclosure in Miami; philanthropists stop donating to the boarding school; and some girls are forced back home because their parents no longer can pay the tuition.  The world of debutante dances and the money class is shaken.

Horses play a major role in Thea’s life; her daring and proficient skills place her in the advanced riding class.  At the end of the summer, she stays on; Thea’s parents do not want her to come back home.  Letters from home are scarce – alluding to the incident and its consequences.  Eventually, the secret is revealed, but Thea continues to attract trouble as DiSclafani carefully rounds out her main character as a strong-willed yet vulnerable target, who inadvertently succumbs to feelings while looking for love.

A mix of family secrets and illicit romance, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls is not targeted to a younger audience – the sexually explicit scenes would raise the rating to R –  yet NPR’s Mary Pols notes:

“{this} painstakingly constructed ode to a young girl’s sexual awakening — {is} just ladylike enough to be more bodice unbuttoner than bodice ripper… perhaps one of the classier books a young teen would hide under her covers to read with a flashlight.”

A page-turner that kept me riveted…

Navigating Early

9780385742092_p0_v1_s260x420When a young boy loses his mother, his quest for survival includes an adventure with a brilliant mathematical prodigy in Clare Vanderpool’s Navigating Early. As the author of the Newbery winning Moon Over Manifest, Vanderpool knows how to create suspense, excitement, and heart-rending moments; she made me cry and cheer with and for her characters.

When Jack Baker’s mother dies suddenly, his Naval officer father returns from the World War II front to a Northeast military base and enrolls Jack in a boarding school in Maine, far from the home he has always known in Kansas. Still reeling from grief, Jack, the new boy at school, finds solace in the friendship of another loner, Early Auden, who sees numbers in color and has created a story around the number pi that includes his quest to find his brother – declared dead after an explosion during the war in France. Auden is convinced that his brother is alive, and that clues to finding him lay in the calculation of the 3.14 number base – pi – and the story he weaves around it. As Jack and Auden follow the Appalachian trail through a journey that includes…

“pirates, a volcano, a great white whale, a hundred year-old woman, a lost hero, a hidden cave, a great Appalachian bear, and a timber rattlesnake – in Maine,”

both finally find peace and connections to their families, themselves, and to each other. This story of friendship, coping, and self-discovery is aimed at the middle school reader, but, as an adult, I count it as a favorite. As Jack’s mother advised…

“You have to look for the things that connect us all. Find the ways our paths cross, our lives intersect, and our hearts collide…”

Related Post: Review of “Moon Over Manifest”

River King by Alice Hoffman

With her trademark mix of magic and trauma, Alice Hoffman’s The River King has an uncanny scary quality that marks how the world deals with injustice.  First published in July, 2000, sadly, the world has not changed and Hoffman’s cautions are still relevant.

As a fan of Hoffman, I’ve read Practical Magic and The Red Garden, but found this Gothic tale of high school bullies and small town rivalries through a recent review by a fellow writer.  The story is set at a New England boarding school, centered around Carlin and Gus, the misfit scholarship students who have trouble connecting with their wealthy fellows;  Abel, the handsome local police detective; and Betsy, the photography teacher who snaps a picture of a ghost. A death, with some supernatural aftereffects, initiates the action – revealing the underbelly of society in the small town and the exclusive institution.  With characteristic attention to the true nature of her principals, Hoffman weaves a tale of romance and mystery – solving  a crime in the end as well as connecting those seeking true love.

Full of ghosts and mysterious happenings – appropriate for this time of year – a spooky Halloween tale, with a little social conscience thrown in – and Hoffman’s lyrical descriptions of people and places.

Related ReviewThe Red Garden

The Flight of Gemma Harding

Does this sound familiar?

A ten-year old orphan is adopted by her mother’s brother.  When her uncle dies, her cruel aunt mistreats her, and her mean cousins find every opportunity to torment her.  Finally, she is sent off to a boarding school where her life becomes even more miserable as she finds herself an indentured servant to earn her board and tuition. Eventually, she becomes the governess to a precocious young girl in the care of her handsome and rich benefactor.  It is no accident that Margot Livesey creates a modern-day Jane Eyre in her gothic romance –  The Flight of Gemma Harding.

Like Bronte’s heroine, Gemma is feisty, smart, and determined to have a better life.  Fans of Jane Eyre will recognize familiar scenes, but Livesey carefully modernizes the tale with clever historical updates. Gemma yearns for a university education (doubtful that Jane ever could aspire to that in the 1840s), but most elements are the same – except for one important difference.

Mr. Sinclair is not Mr. Rochester, despite his similar handsome and rich attributes.  When 18-year-old Gemma flees on her wedding day from 41-year-old Hugh Sinclair, no lunatic wife haunts the attic.  His sin is still deceit, but Gemma’s perception makes it seem worse.  He suddenly is no longer the idealistic hero she had imagined.

“It’s not as if I have another wife, or a mistress, or a child.  I did something wrong when I was eighteen.”

No spoiler here, but the revelation of Sinclair’s fumbling left me yearning for the brooding Rochester.  As the story continued, I found myself checking my memory – missing the original.

Livesey focuses on Gemma’s coming of age tale – making the book more readable to its young adult audience.   In Livesey’s version, the heroine finds her heritage and her fortune in Iceland.  And, of course, lives happily ever – after she grows up a little.  The ending is not as dramatic as Jane Eyre, but retains the elements of romance and possibilities.

I remember listening to an updated song with my parents as they remembered its original version – so much better, they thought.  Having never heard any other, I did not understand their anxiety – until later when I heard theirs.   The Flight of Gemma Harding has all the romantic elements for an easy read, and Livesey’s eloquence kept me reading to the end.   But will readers who have never read Jane Eyre know the difference?  Will they know what they are missing?

Related Article:  Jane Eyre