As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust by Alan Bradley

In this, the seventh book in Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series, our twelve-year-old detective is sent away to boarding school in 1950s Canada, having been banished from her family home at the end of the previous novel. If you have never read a Flavia mystery before, this is probably not the best place to start; I would recommend reading at least a few of the earlier ones first, particularly the sixth, The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, so that you will understand the reasons for her banishment and the choice of this particular Canadian school.

Anyway, back to As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust. Almost as soon as Flavia arrives at Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy in Toronto, she stumbles upon yet another dead body – or rather, this one stumbles upon Flavia when it falls down the chimney in her room, having been dislodged by another girl who has climbed up to hide from a teacher. Why is there a dead body up the chimney? Who is it? Could it be one of the three missing girls who have all disappeared from the Academy over the last year or two? Flavia doesn’t know, but she’s determined to find out!

This is the first book in the series not to be set at Buckshaw, the de Luce ancestral home in the English village of Bishop’s Lacey. I have always found the setting to be part of the charm of these books, so although it was nice to have a change, I did find myself missing Father, Feely, Daffy, Dogger and everyone else from Buckshaw. There are plenty of new characters in this book to take their places – including an enigmatic and intimidating headmistress and a chemistry teacher who has been on trial for murder – but none of them felt as well drawn as the characters in the previous novels.

Still, I always enjoy a school setting because it brings back memories of the school stories I loved as a child, such as Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers and St Clare’s books. Maybe Alan Bradley liked that sort of story too and wanted an opportunity to write one of his own; otherwise I’m not sure I really see the point in moving Flavia out of her usual setting. I had expected the storyline involving the Nide, which was introduced in the last book, to be advanced in this one, but actually we learn very little more about it – and what we do learn just made me more confused!

I was pleased to find that this book had a much stronger mystery element than the previous one and although some parts of the mystery didn’t feel fully resolved at the end, it was nice to see Flavia back to making her lists of suspects and searching for clues. Finally, don’t Alan Bradley’s books have great titles? This one is taken from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline: “Golden lads and girls all must, As chimney-sweepers, come to dust”. The title of the next one, Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d, is also Shakespeare-inspired. I’m looking forward to reading it – despite not liking the last two books as much as the earlier ones, I do still enjoy spending time with Flavia!

This is Book #2 for my R.I.P. XII challenge.

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Leopard at the Door by Jennifer McVeigh

This is the first book I’ve read by Jennifer McVeigh, although I do remember hearing good things about her first novel, The Fever Tree. This latest one, Leopard at the Door, sounded appealing too – and I did like it, although it was a much darker novel than I’d been expecting!

The novel opens in 1952 with our narrator, Rachel Fullsmith, arriving in Kenya after an absence of six years. Rachel was born to British parents but spent her childhood in Kenya until, after losing her mother at the age of twelve, she was sent to England to live with her grandparents. Now, as an eighteen-year-old, she is returning to the place she still considers to be home, only to find that everything has changed…and not in a good way.

Trouble is brewing in Kenya, with unrest threatening to spill over into violence as the group known as Mau Mau begin to rebel against British rule. Rachel has fond memories of her friendships with the Kikuyu people and at first she isn’t too worried, but with increasing reports of oaths being sworn to the Mau Mau and attacks on both Europeans and on Kikuyu who try to resist the movement, she realises how serious the situation is. The Fullsmith farmhouse is not a safe haven either, though; Rachel’s father has a new partner, Sara, who makes no secret of her contempt for the ‘natives’ and who can barely hide her hostility towards Rachel. Turning to her childhood tutor, Michael, for support, Rachel is glad that she still has one true friend left – but, as a Kenyan, Michael is torn between helping the cause of his own people and loyalty to the white people he has lived and worked with for so many years.

The Mau Mau Uprising of 1952 played a significant part in Kenya’s history, but although I had heard of it, I really knew nothing about it – the events leading up to it or what the rebellion itself involved – until reading this book. As you can probably imagine, it’s not pleasant to read about; although the cover may look light and romantic, the story is anything but. This was a harsh and violent time, with people killed for refusing to swear an oath and men, women and children murdered in their own homes or hacked to death with pangas (and I should warn you that there are also some graphic descriptions of the slaughter of animals). The characters in the novel provide us with a range of views and attitudes, from Sara’s racism and prejudice to Rachel’s horror at the brutality but desire to understand. As someone with no prior knowledge of the rebellion, I thought the author did an excellent job of explaining what happened and why, and of trying to show both sides of the story.

Rachel’s personal story is interesting too and again it’s quite dark. When she first returns to Kenya she is full of excitement and nostalgia, but she quickly has to reconcile her happy memories with the reality of the present day – with the violence surrounding her, the distance between herself and her father, and her struggle to find any common ground with Sara. Some horrible things happen to Rachel over the course of the novel, particularly near the end, but she does still have some moments of happiness; she also has a love interest, although I didn’t find their romance very convincing and I felt that this was the one element that let the book down.

Jennifer McVeigh writes beautifully about Kenya, bringing to life the vast landscape, the heat of the sun, the animals and birds. There is a lot to enjoy in this novel even if, due to the subject, it’s not always the easiest of reads. It reminded me at times of Dinah Jefferies’ The Separation, which is about a similar uprising in Malaya, so if you have read that novel I would recommend trying this one too.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Silk Merchant’s Daughter by Dinah Jefferies

After reading and loving Dinah Jefferies’ The Tea Planter’s Wife last month, I immediately added another of her books, The Silk Merchant’s Daughter, to my 20 Books of Summer list, hoping for another great read.

The Silk Merchant’s Daughter is set in French Indochina, the name formerly given to the group of French colonial territories which included Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. The title character – and our heroine – is Nicole Duval, the eighteen-year-old daughter of a French silk merchant based in Hanoi, the capital city. The period during which the story takes place is a turbulent time in the history of the region and Jefferies provides a useful timeline at the front of the book for those of us who need some help in understanding the sequence of events.

As the novel opens in 1952, Nicole learns that her father is planning to hand over the running of the entire silk business to her older sister, Sylvie, leaving Nicole with only one small, neglected silk shop in the Vietnamese quarter of the city. Nicole is disappointed and resentful; her relationship with Sylvie has been difficult from childhood and yet again, Nicole has been made to feel inferior. To make matters worse, the man she loves – Mark, an American trader who is in Hanoi on mysterious government business – has previously been in a relationship with her sister, and Nicole is not at all sure that he and Sylvie no longer have feelings for each other.

Determined to make the best of things, Nicole opens up the little silk shop and it is here, living and working among the Vietnamese people, that she begins to understand their discontent with French rule. With the help of Tran, a militant with the revolutionary group the Viet Minh, Nicole’s mind is opened to new ideas and views. Being half Vietnamese herself – she has inherited her looks from her late Vietnamese mother, whereas Sylvie resembles their French father – Nicole has a certain amount of sympathy for Tran and his friends. But Mark and the Duvals will be on the opposite site of the coming conflict, so Nicole needs to decide where and with whom her loyalties lie.

The Silk Merchant’s Daughter is another enjoyable and engaging novel from Dinah Jefferies, bringing to life the history of a place about which I previously knew very little. Having learned about the Malayan Emergency in The Separation and 1920s Ceylon in The Tea Planter’s Wife, it was good to have the opportunity this time to add to my knowledge of Vietnam. I haven’t read much about the Vietnam War and nothing at all – until now – about the years immediately preceding it, encompassing the rise of the Viet Minh and the First Indochina War. It was also interesting to read about French colonialism, which made a change from reading about British colonialism!

Writing the novel from the perspective of Nicole was a good decision by Jefferies, as she is in the unusual position of being both French and Vietnamese. However, I never really felt that she was truly torn between the two and it seemed fairly obvious to me which side, and which man, she would eventually choose, and that took some of the tension and emotion out of the story. There are some wonderful descriptions of Vietnam, from the sights, sounds and smells of the streets of Hanoi to the colours and textures of Nicole’s silks, but on the whole I found this book slightly disappointing after the very high standards set by The Tea Planter’s Wife.

Although this is not my favourite Dinah Jefferies book, I am still looking forward to reading Before the Rains, her new novel set in India.

This is book 2/20 for my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

Margaret Kennedy Day: Lucy Carmichael

For this year’s Margaret Kennedy Day, hosted by Jane at Beyond Eden Rock, I decided to read Lucy Carmichael, Kennedy’s tenth novel, published in 1951. With so many of her books still unread to choose from – I’ve previously read only The Constant Nymph and Troy Chimneys – I had no real reason for picking this one over the others, but it’s one of Jane’s favourites so I hoped I had made a good choice!

Lucy Carmichael, as you would expect, follows the story of Lucy Carmichael who, as the novel opens, is preparing for her wedding to Patrick Reilly. It should be one of the happiest days of Lucy’s life, but instead it is one of the worst: Patrick doesn’t turn up, the wedding doesn’t take place and Lucy is left devastated. As she tries to come to terms with what has happened, she decides that if she is to move on with her life she needs to get away and start again in a place where nobody knows about her past. And so she jumps at the chance to take a new job at an arts institute in another town, which sounds like just the sort of change she needs.

Settling into her new home and new job in Ravonsbridge, Lucy makes new friends, forms new relationships and becomes a valued member of the community. Eventually she will even have the chance to love again, although it will take her a while to get to that point as she now has different priorities and more experience, and wants to get things right this time. Apart from the drama of the opening scenes this is not a very dramatic story, but there is still a lot going on in Lucy’s life and I won’t delve into the plot in any more detail as I wouldn’t want to spoil any little surprises for future readers.

Margaret Kennedy shows a lot of understanding and sympathy for Lucy’s situation; being jilted at the altar is, thankfully, not something I have experienced myself but if it did happen I hope that I would have the strength to react the way Lucy does, with dignity and resilience, rather than allowing her heartbreak and humiliation to destroy the rest of her life. Lucy is also lucky that she has a close and loyal friend – Melissa – who keeps in touch with her after she leaves home, and although the story of their friendship is told mainly in the form of letters, it was one of my favourite aspects of the book.

But although I did enjoy this book – very much so – I couldn’t quite love it. I thought the story lost its way a little bit during the second half of the book and while Lucy’s work in the community was still interesting to read about, I wasn’t as absorbed as I was at the beginning. Last year for Margaret Kennedy Day I read Troy Chimneys, which turned out to be one of my books of the year; of all Kennedy’s novels, I suspect that was the perfect one for me and that I can’t expect the others to satisfy all of my personal reading tastes in quite the same way. Still, it was lovely to meet and get to know Lucy!

Have you read Lucy Carmichael or anything else by Margaret Kennedy? Are you taking part in this year’s Margaret Kennedy Day?

Duplicate Death by Georgette Heyer – #1951club

Karen of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon of Stuck in a Book are hosting another of their book clubs this week. This time it’s the 1951 Club and the idea is that we all read and write about books published in the same year. 1951 seems to have been a particularly good year for publishing – I have linked to some of my previous reviews at the bottom of this post – but when choosing what to read this week it was the crime novels from that year which appealed to me the most. The first one I picked up was Georgette Heyer’s Duplicate Death. Heyer is better known for her Regency romances, but she also wrote mysteries and, having read two of them (Envious Casca and Footsteps in the Dark), I’ve been looking forward to reading more.

Duplicate Death brings back characters who first appeared in They Found Him Dead, which I haven’t read yet but will eventually. Although a few references are made to things which I assume happened in the earlier novel, I don’t feel that reading this one first was a problem. At the beginning of the novel, Jim Kane receives a letter from his mother telling him of her concerns about his half-brother, Timothy, who has just become engaged to Beulah Birtley, a secretary in the household of the wealthy Mrs Haddington. Jim’s mother is unhappy because she has been able to discover nothing at all about Beulah’s family or background – surely the girl must be an Adventuress! Reluctantly, Jim agrees to visit Timothy to see if he can shed any light on the matter.

Meanwhile, Mrs Haddington is hosting a bridge party at her home in London. When one of the guests is found strangled after leaving the room to answer the telephone, suspicion falls on several of the people present at the party, including the mysterious Beulah Birtley. Chief Inspector Hemingway of Scotland Yard is called in to investigate, but before he’s had time to solve one murder, another takes place. The second murder appears to be identical to the first – but is it? Have both crimes been committed by the same person? And what is Beulah’s secret?

I enjoyed this book, after a slow start, but not as much as the other Heyer mysteries I’ve read. I felt that the story took too long to really get started; I appreciate that some time needs to be spent on setting the scene, but the characters just didn’t interest me enough to hold my attention throughout the build-up. With the exception of Timothy, they’re an unpleasant bunch of people – and although there are still examples of the witty dialogue Heyer is so good at, I think she does it much better in the Regencies than the mysteries. Once the first murder was committed and Hemingway arrived on the scene, though, the story became a lot more compelling.

I said in my Envious Casca review that, as far as literary detectives go, Hemingway is not a very interesting one. This time I found that I liked him more than I did before. I liked his brisk, no-nonsense attitude and the fact that he doesn’t have any little quirks or eccentricities; instead of bringing too much of his own personality to the investigations, he just gets on with the job, which is actually quite refreshing. His relationship with his assistant, Inspector Grant, works well, although I’m not sure that having Grant returning from his trip home to Scotland speaking Gaelic was really as funny as it was obviously intended to be!

I’m now reading a second book from 1951 – They Came to Baghdad by Agatha Christie – and hope to post my thoughts on that one before the end of the club.

~

More 1951 books previously read and reviewed on this blog:

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey
My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier
The Quiet Gentleman by Georgette Heyer
The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

It’s been a few years since I read my first Barbara Pym novel, Less Than Angels, and I really thought I would have read another one before now. For some reason, though, it has just never felt like the right time and poor Excellent Women has lingered on my Classics Club list until almost the end. I wish I’d managed to read it sooner as I did enjoy it, although I think I preferred Less Than Angels, which is surprising as this is certainly Barbara Pym’s best known book and seems to be many people’s favourite as well.

Mildred Lathbury is one of the excellent women of the title and is also our narrator. An unmarried woman in her early thirties, she lives alone in a flat in 1950s London and works part-time at a society for impoverished gentlewomen. Although her parents are both dead, Mildred’s father had been a clergyman and the church is still a big part of her life. She devotes her spare time to helping out at her local parish church, St Mary’s, where she has become good friends with the vicar, Julian Malory, and his sister Winifred.

As the novel opens, Mildred discovers she has new neighbours moving in below – they are Helena Napier, an anthropologist, and her husband Rockingham (Rocky), who has just come home from the Navy. After being apart for so long, the Napiers are struggling to settle down into married life; Helena is preoccupied with her work and spending a lot of time with another anthropologist, Everard Bone, leaving Rocky to turn to Mildred for companionship and support. Soon Mildred finds herself more deeply involved in the problems of Helena, Rocky and Everard than she had intended to be – and a further complication arrives in the form of Allegra Grey, an attractive widow who takes the spare room at the vicarage and quickly begins to cause trouble for the vicar and his sister.

Excellent Women is definitely the sort of book in which characters are more important than plot, and I’m happy with that when the characters are as real and as convincing as these. I liked Mildred from the beginning – partly because, as a single woman myself, I could understand and sympathise with her in a lot of ways, but also because she seems a genuinely nice person. Her friends and neighbours expect Mildred to always have time for them and their problems, to listen, to give advice and to provide cups of tea – all the things that make an ‘excellent woman’ – but there’s also a sense that she is often taken for granted and misunderstood. She likes living on her own and values her independence and, while she hasn’t completely ruled out the prospect of marrying one day, it isn’t a priority for her either.

I enjoyed getting to know Mildred and spending some time in her world, but I didn’t love this novel as wholeheartedly as I hoped I would and as I know most other readers have. Although the writing is quite witty in places, I remember finding Less Than Angels a much more humorous book and I think that could be why I liked that one more. Or maybe I just like to be different! Still, I’m looking forward to reading more of Barbara Pym’s work – and will try not to wait so long before picking up another one.

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley

the-dead-in-their-vaulted-arches I love Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series. I love the 1950s setting, I love getting to know the inhabitants of Buckshaw – the de Luce estate in the little English village of Bishop’s Lacey – and most of all I love Flavia, our eleven-year-old narrator with a talent for solving mysteries and a passion for chemistry and poisons. The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, though, is probably my least favourite Flavia novel so far. I found it quite disappointing, but I’m hoping it’s just that I was in the wrong mood for it and that things will get back to normal when I pick up the next book in the series.

The first Flavia novel, if you’re like me and prefer to read a series in order, is The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches is book number six and although some of the earlier novels could probably be read as standalones, I wouldn’t recommend reading this particular book until you’ve read the fifth one, Speaking from Among the Bones, because it ended on a cliffhanger – and this one picks up the story from that point.

The de Luce family have been joined by their friends and neighbours on the platform at Buckshaw Halt, waiting for the arrival of the train bringing Flavia’s mother, Harriet, home to Bishop’s Lacey. Flavia has never known her mother – she was just a baby when Harriet went missing (presumed dead), in Tibet ten years earlier. It’s an emotional day for Flavia and her family, then, but it’s also an eventful one in other ways…a stranger at the station begins to give Flavia a cryptic message, but moments later he is found dead beneath the wheels of the train as it leaves. Did someone push him? And could his death be connected with what happened to Harriet?

I think every time I’ve written about this series I’ve said that the mystery-solving is only one small element of each book and that the real charm is in the setting, the characters and Flavia’s narration. In this particular novel the mystery is almost non-existent and Flavia doesn’t get a chance to do the detective work she usually does, searching for clues and making lists of suspects. This gives The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches a different feel from the rest of the series and I think that could be why I didn’t like it as much. It seems that the mystery element was more important to me than I thought it was! That’s not to say, though, that there were no secrets to be uncovered here and no revelations to be made – because there certainly were.

Flavia, who was ten years old when we first met her, is now nearly twelve and I think Alan Bradley is doing a great job of showing the subtle changes in her character from one book to the next as she begins to grow up. Things happen in this book which require a more mature attitude from Flavia and she is forced to make some difficult decisions, but there are also times when she still behaves like the child she is – for example, when she becomes convinced that she will be able to use her chemical skills to reanimate a dead body.

With a storyline based around Harriet’s return, most of the action in this novel takes place in and around Buckshaw which means Flavia spends a lot of time with the other de Luce family members. Her relationships with her father and her sisters, Daffy and Feely (Daphne and Ophelia), are still strained, but some of the information revealed in this book helps us to understand why this is. I’ve been wondering since the beginning of the series why Daffy and Feely had such a problem with Flavia, so I’m pleased that things have finally become a bit clearer!

I’m not sure whether I liked the direction the story went in towards the end of the book but I’m still looking forward to reading As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust, and hoping I will like it better than this one.