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Books We Like

Published 9/10/2015 by Karen Feeney

Books We Like

Like many avid readers, I like to read for a variety of reasons and that leads me to read a variety of books. The genres I read most are mystery, suspense, fantasy, historical fiction, and my most favorite, magical realism. What I especially love is when an element of one book leads me to another.

By far I read more fiction than nonfiction but while I was thinking of books that I like I realized that lately my fiction choices have led me to read more nonfiction works. The beginning of this trend happened when I read The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley. This is the first book in the Flavia de Luce series featuring a precocious eleven year-old named Flavia who inhabits her family's rather shabby, 1950s English estate, Buckshaw, with her sisters, Daphne and Ophelia, her father, his handyman Dogger, and their cook, Mrs. Mullet. Added to this list of recurring characters are Inspector Hewitt with whom Flavia has many a chance meeting (more on that in a minute) and Flavia's bicycle, Gladys, with which she rides through Bishop's Lacey howling "YAROO" when the moment strikes her, mainly when she has solved a riddle. Which she often does.

Flavia’s life is less than perfect. Her mother disappeared on a mountain climbing expedition when she was a year old. Her father, a gentleman philatelist (he studies stamps), is rather standoffish. Her sisters are merciless in their taunting and teasing. In this environment, Flavia escapes to the abandoned laboratory of her deceased uncle, Tarquin de Luce, in an unused wing of the once grand mansion. There she engages her considerable intellect learning about her passion, poisons! That is when she isn’t out doing the other thing she’s remarkably brilliant at, solving murders. Her first opportunity to solve a murder happens when a man dies in the kitchen garden. This begins the parry between Flavia and Inspector Hewitt, who has to follow police protocol but also does not want to squash Flavia’s budding detection abilities.

This series is a delight for me to read. If you love character driven fiction, you will like this series. I have read or listened to the audio version, read by Jayne Entwistle (who is in my opinion THE voice of Flavia), of each of the currently seven books in the series and I feel like I have met each one of the characters, visited Buckshaw, and I honestly wish that I could be Flavia’s best friend and partner-in-crime.

When some element of a book sparks my interest in reading more about a subject, I get excited about reading. After I read Stephen King’s Bag of Bones I just had to read Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier because it was mentioned in the book in such a way that I was intrigued. I was not disappointed. The same holds true for The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum. All Flavia’s musings about poisons, chemistry, and the scientific explanations she gives for the reasons why chemicals behave the way they do sparked my curiosity in, you guessed it, poison. So I picked up a copy of Blum’s book and was blown away. It reads like a crime thriller. These toxic chemicals were not only used by unscrupulous criminals in murderous fashion, they were occasionally ingested accidentally with disastrous effects, and using products with these chemicals led to long lasting health problems. Blum is a historian with a knack for describing history in a way that is not only factual but gripping. I couldn't put it down. She breathes life into the people who lived, worked, and died during the early 20th century when toxic chemicals were easy to buy, used in multitudes of household products, and not easily detected. All elements that made it difficult for detectives to solve the “perfect crime.”

Detailing the identification of many common poisonous chemical elements in the 19th century and their use in goods ranging from cosmetics and medicine to pesticides, Blum quickly sets the stage for the arrival in 1918 of Charles Norris, a pathologist appointed chief medical examiner for New York City who hires toxicologist Alexander Gettler for the city’s first toxicology laboratory. Their work changed the game forever for criminals as they began finding new ways of poison detection and advocating for the regulation of dangerous chemicals. Poisoner’s Handbook is a far cry from a dry, factual accounting. Blum weaves the tale of each poison’s heyday in the hands of criminals with descriptions of their motives, their reckoning with the law, trials, and how Norris and Gettler were able to solve cases with scientific testing. A lively, provocative, and brisk read.

I once thought that I was a well-read individual but the more I read the less I believe that to be true and happily so.There is so much to know that I will never be bored reading. When I read a book that makes me see the world in a different light, I am overjoyed. The Spymistress by Jennifer Chiaverini is one recent book that did that for me. Until I read it, I hadn’t ever thought of the lives of Union sympathizers living in the South during the American Civil War. Peppered with factual information, Chiaverini paints a very personal and intimate portrait of a woman of convictions that risked her life to support the Union cause.

The story tells of Elizabeth Van Lew’s upbringing in a Quaker school that fostered her belief in abolition and preserved her loyalty to the Lincoln White House. Not only was Van Lew a Union spy, she operated amidst powerful people in the Confederate capital and managed to gain information by planting her spies in high places, namely the home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The fictional aspect of this novel is the voice of Elizabeth. Her thoughts, motivations, and fears are spoken in the narrative as she utilizes her social position in the city to bring relief to Union prisoners, gather intelligence, and free slaves. It was an eye-opening, fast-paced read. While reading the novel, I could picture myself in Richmond during the war, visiting the squalid conditions of Libby Prison and facing the wrath of people in the community who became increasingly hostile to Van Lew in their belief that she was a traitor.

Spy stories have always intrigued me. In my opinion, spycraft has often been romanticized, especially when I think of the French Resistance fighters of World War II or for that matter James Bond. After reading Chiaverini’s The Spymistress I was definitely interested in reading more about Elizabeth Van Lew. I had the opportunity at last year’s Bookmarks Festival to hear author Karen Abbott talk about her research for Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy and I could not wait to read it. Abbott has a flair for the dramatic and makes the four women’s stories leap off the page. Although at times, these rebellious women could be described by more than one of the titles, Belle Boyd used lies to try to flush out Union sympathizers and to escape detection as a Confederate courier. Mrs. Rose O’Neal Greenhow tempted politicians from the North into romantic entanglements to gain information for the Confederacy. Emma Edmonds lived as a man and became a soldier in the Union Army. And of course, Elizabeth Van Lew, who successfully coordinated a complex espionage ring in the middle of the new southern capital.

Though this book reads like fiction, it is a heavily researched work of nonfiction. Abbott details the legacy of each of these women with supporting documents and photographs. Interweaving one woman’s story with the next, their actions unfold chronologically by year and give alternating views of what it was like for each of them during the progression of the war and the important people with whom they interacted. Occasionally graphic with battle details, it is otherwise thrilling and informative on a much missed aspect of a turbulent time in American history.

I hope you have enjoyed this review and are looking forward to reading one or more of these great books. I hope they lead you to other great reads, too!

Books mentioned in this review:

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley (Flavia de Luce series)
The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum
The Spymistress by Jennifer Chiaverini
Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy
by Karen Abbott