25 September 2014


The always delightful Alice White and friend.

I've managed to plow through a stack of books over the course of the last few months (one upside of insomnia) and am now looking at just four left on my nightstand (one of which is The Goldfinch so it will be a while before I need to get some new books). In writing up my recent reads, I realized that they're almost all British. Hmm. Will have to broaden my horizons. But for now, I bring you another instalment of Bookshelf.

Flavia de Luce, an 11-year old with a passion for chemistry (especially poisons), lives with her two older sisters and widowed father in their old family estate in the English countryside. One day their rather dull 1950s life is interrupted by the discovery of a dead bird with a postage stamp on his beak outside their door followed by Flavia witnessing a strange man die in their garden. Unwilling to leave the mystery to the local authorities, Flavia sets out on her bike to solve it herself. Wise beyond her years and completely endearing, Flavia is a wonderful young sleuth. The first in a series, I’m looking forward to reading more of Flavia’s adventures.

Frog Music—Emma Donoghue
During a heat wave and smallpox epidemic in 1876 San Francisco, French dancer Blanche Beunon witnesses the murder of her cross-dressing friend, the frog catcher Jenny Bonnet. Convinced that her “fancy man,” Arthur Deneve, whom she has left, and his ever-present friend, Ernest, are responsible, Blanche sets out to prove who killed Jenny while also attempting to find her own baby son whom she gave away. Donoghue does a wonderful job of bringing San Francisco to life, from the teeming streets of Chinatown to the nearly deserted outskirts of the city. And while Blanche can try the patience of the reader, Jenny imbues the story with energy whenever she appears.

Maggie Hope is in Scotland, training new recruits while recovering from her undercover mission in Berlin. Suffering from what Churchill calls the Black Dog (depression), she adopts an abandoned tabby and decides to go to Glasgow to see her friend, Sarah, perform in La Sylphide. But when two members of the dance troupe suddenly die and Sarah falls gravely ill, Maggie becomes determined to find an answer and save her friend’s life. Inter cut with Maggie’s story is that of her mother, awaiting her execution for treason, and Japan’s planned attack on Pearl Harbor, which Churchill gets winds of early on. I really enjoy the Maggie Hope series but have to admit that this was my least favourite of the books. Let's hope the next one has more Maggie and fewer story lines (although a guest appearance by Ian Fleming was fun).

Down the Garden Path—Beverley Nichols
A noted author of everything from children’s books to newspaper columns, Beverley Nichols was an avid gardener who wrote a trilogy about his gardens at Allways, his cottage in Cambridgeshire. Down the Garden Path is the first and perhaps most loved of the books. Filled with the trials and tribulations of creating the gardens including having flowers in the winter, turning a field into a wood, and failing at a rock garden, it's a humorous and engaging account. Along the way Nichols makes witty observations about the people he encounters, often with his claws out, and makes confessions: “I would rather be made bankrupt by a bulb merchant than by a chorus girl.” A must read for gardening fans.

The Quick—Lauren Owen 
In Victorian England, introverted poet James Norbury moves to London where he finds lodgings with a member of the aristocracy. When his letters to his sister, Charlotte, in Oxford suddenly cease, she comes to the city to find out what happened to him. What she uncovers is an underworld of nefarious goings-on and creatures of the night with all trails leading to the Aegolius Club whose members have blood on their minds. After a wonderful opening chapter, the book slows down for a while before a sudden plot twist picks up the pace and leaves the reader on edge. I really liked the direction in which the story went and that the author presented main characters who were often unlikeable. I just wish it had been a wee bit smaller.

Love Nina: A Nanny Writes Home—Nina Stibbe 
In 1982, 20-year old Nina Stibbe moved to London from her small town near Leicestershire to work as a nanny to Sam and Will Frears whose mother was Kay Wilmers, deputy editor of the London Review of Books. Nina wrote regular letters back home to her sister, Vic, with observations about life in London and little, everyday details about the boys, her employer, and the guests who frequented the house including their neighbour and regular dinner companion, Alan Bennett. Included in her stories is the cat that no one really likes, her cooking that often gets criticized (turkey mince!), and the abuse experienced by the family car. After a while, Nina becomes a part of the family, continuing to live at the house even after she goes to university. A charming read that brought back some memories for this former au pair.

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