I recently finished Alan Bradley's A Red Herring Without Mustard, the third novel in his mystery series featuring young and delightfully nosy Flavia de Luce. I'm not a great fan of any kind of genre fiction, but Bradley's prose style is so winning, I cannot keep away. While the second book in the series felt like an overly hasty attempt to capitalize on the success of the first, this third book returns to the measured grace of the original (which I praised in this review). Here's a representative sliver of text: "The de Luce silverware was kept in a dark folding cabinet which, when opened, presented a remarkable array of fish forks, toddy ladles, mote spoons, marrow scoops, lobster picks, sugar nips, grape shears, and pudding trowels, all arranged in steps, like so many silvery salmon leaping up the stony staircase of a whisky-colored stream somewhere in Scotland." Alas, Flavia finds one of those lobster picks up the nose of a corpse hanging from the de Luce fountain. Bradley has set his novels ridiculously close together in time in order to prevent his 11-year-old heroine from getting any older, but she continues to grow through the stories all the same. I enjoy the fact that with each mystery, Flavia learns more about her late mother—a result that feels every bit as significant as unmasking a murderer. If you're looking for a more hard-hitting read, check out these other suggestions:
Karna Converse, managing editor and senior editor, writes, "According to some blurbs, Amy Parker's debut collection of linked stories addresses 'the sometimes dark heart of the American family' and the 'catastrophe known as childhood.' I was intrigued, but braced myself for the kind of stories that reveal the worst side of human nature and make us suspicious of our neighbors. The ten stories in Beasts & Children aren't that dark, but they do draw attention to how a child views an event and how that event subsequently becomes a defining moment in his or her life. Parker introduces us to the children of three families—Cissy and Carline Bowman, Cousin Danny, Jill and Maizie Foster, and Jerry Ferrell—whose lives are altered by the choices their parents make, and who, ultimately, find their lives entwined with each other as adults. (Five of the stories take place during the main character's childhood, the other five in adulthood.) Throughout it all, Parker had me thinking about the defining moments in my own life and nodding my head in agreement with the character who believes 'that we all get stuck at certain points in our lives, that they come to define us and exert a kind of gravity.' Readers who like character-driven stories are sure to appreciate this collection."
Kate Haas, senior editor and creative nonfiction editor, shares, "I'm currently enthralled by You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz. A successful therapist, Grace Reinhart is readying for the launch of her self-help book, You Should Have Known. Its thesis posits that a man will tell a woman everything she needs to know about him in the first few conversations; yet, caught up in her own narrative of romance, the woman will ignore warnings she should heed. Grace herself has a serene, satisfying life centered on family and tradition. Her son goes to the same elite private school she attended, and she lives in the comfortable apartment where she grew up. Her marriage, to a charismatic oncologist, is loving and long-term. But of course . . . she should have known. The unraveling of Grace's life in this thriller makes for a hair-raising read, and it's also a delectable entree into the world of upper-crust New York mothers and schools. More than that, it raises provocative questions about how well anyone can truly know another."
Creative Nonfiction Editor Dawn Haines compares two books that address the same difficult subject matter: "Susan Klebold has broken her silence, a silence her lawyers advised. A silence she and her family surely found necessary the moment the world understood what her son Dylan Klebold had done that spring morning at Columbine High School. Now, more than a decade later, this mother tells her story in A Mother's Reckoning. The story is hers, not her son's—not meant to exonerate or explain, but to continue healing, and more than anything, she claims again and again, to sound a warning, to admonish: mothers, fathers pay attention. We move through the unfolding horrors with Susan, seeing the experience through her: fear, worry, grief, shame, the questions—again and again, what happened? How could Dylan do this? What happened to my boy? What did I do or not do to create this? The questions Americans wanted to hear answered. She analyzes endlessly in order to understand. And this is what she wants of us in breaking her silence: that we analyze ourselves, be clear and vigilant, and take action when we think things are not well with our children and their communities. She repeatedly takes us through all the possible markers she missed. By her accounting, however, hers was an educated, aware, loving family with open lines of communication. Indeed, what went wrong?
"Lionel Shriver is more successful in her attempt to answer that question in her 2005 Orange Prize-winning novel We Need to Talk about Kevin. Perhaps this is the gift of fiction in approaching such stories: we can inhabit emotional, psychological, social and historical landscapes through craft, the reflective embodied in action, dialogue, setting, metaphor. In Shriver's novel, a mother continues to exist in her small town community after her teenaged son Kevin commits shockingly gruesome murders. The story, told in hindsight, opens a deeply disturbing window on motherhood, as this mother looks for her culpability and accepts the feelings and thoughts most of us never want to face, much less admit. The character's honesty and self-reckoning may only be possible in the pages of fiction. Meanwhile, the reader feels her isolation, disorientation and desolation through the gorgeous writing.
"Susan Klebold tells us what she was feeling and thinking, how a terrible event changed everything, but we are left outside. She relies on the repetition of honest and direct, but well-known expressions: 'I was devastated.' 'I closed the door and sobbed.' Klebold is courageous in committing her story to the page and making it public, but the narrative style falls flat. Even so, A Mother's Reckoning is and will remain an important book for all of us to read. In Klebold's journey, her questioning, we are given the opportunity to ask hard questions of ourselves and of our children; for us, it may not be too late."
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