Alan Bradley’s fifth novel in his engrossing Flavia de Luce series begins with the graphic image of blood dripping from the freshly severed head of John the Baptist, setting the stage for the certainly the bloodiest (and decomposing body-est) adventure for Flavia yet. As always, the reader is hooked from that first shocking image, and we plunge head-first with Flavia into her fifth murder investigation in less than a year.
I have read this series from the beginning, and, though I have thoroughly enjoyed all of them, I found Speaking from Among the Bones to be an overall return to form of the first book, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. The mystery revolves around the murder of Mr. Collicutt, the organist at Bishop Lacey’s church, and the opening of the tomb of St. Tancred in the church’s crypt. Much of the story takes place in the cemetery and crypt, and at times Flavia is literally speaking from among the bones and blood. But, with his typical flare and care, Bradley deftly handles the gore not as a gratuitous gross-out but as an integral and effectively used element of his plot. Additionally, several of the usual cast of quirky characters, along with a few new ones, alternately aid and hinder Flavia’s self-appointed investigation, including an aging soprano, an old scientist friend of her father’s, and the ever lovely Vicar Richardson.
Most importantly, though, is the relationship between Flavia and her family: her father; her sisters, Feely and Daffy; and their hired help, Mrs. Mullet and Dogger. The family’s deteriorating fortunes and the effects that has on their evolving relationships has always been the heart of the stories and the thread that ties the books together, elevating the series from a more modern and masterful Nancy Drew re-imagining, to lovely pieces of mystery literature. Here the characters gain even more depth as their relationships deepen in complexity, much to the pain, confusion, and at times delight of our intrepid heroine.
Additionally, Bradley’s style appeals to readers of many ages and levels. One of the joys of his Flavia books have always been the fully-realized and realistic nature of his 11 year old heroine combined with a writing style that is sophisticated, complex, witty, and interesting.
My one complaint this time around is that the solution to the mystery seemed more rushed and pat than usual. It was as if Bradley had a page limit in mind and was trying to complete the story within the assigned parameters. The explanation was satisfying enough, but the build-up lacked some of Bradley’s usual masterful suspense and was over in an uncharacteristic flash. The final twist of the book, however, was shockingly and satisfyingly complete, leaving me yelling in disbelief and desperate for the next installment of the adventures of my favorite poison-loving 11-year-old. If you have not started the series, start at the beginning with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. You will not be disappointed!
Mindy Kaling has been visible for the last several years as a writer and actor on The Office. Honestly, I found her mildly amusing as Kelly Kapoor but was never as invested in her as some of the other characters. However, I have increasingly grown to love her new show, The Mindy Project, and recently decided to pick up her new memoir, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns). It seemed like a nice change of pace from what I normally read.
That is not to say that I consider Kaling’s book fluff. Despite the mass-market title and the cute picture of Kaling in pink on the cover, all things that scream mindless chick-lit (which has its own specific place in our hearts and bookshelves), the book is much more in the vein of Tina Fey’s recent memoir, Bossypants. Fey broke through the memoir barrier, in a way, for other female comics by writing a hilarious, open, insightful, and, at times, brutally honest account of her life and her journey as a highly respected and successful writer and comedian in a predominately male world. Though Kaling’s book is not as deep, perhaps as Fey’s (and she even acknowledges that it is not nor is she trying to make it such), Kaling presents a similarly hilarious, honest, perhaps a bit less insightful account of her own personal journey to comedic success, tracing her childhood as the intelligent and driven, though not very popular, daughter of intelligent and successful immigrants from India through her college years, her first months in New York and ultimately her career as a writer and then actress.
What is charming about the book is that Kaling’s voice rings through so vibrantly. It reads as if you are having a great conversation with your bff, Mindy, over lunch at a trendy-but-not-too-trendy-because-that-would-be-weird-maybe-we-should-just-go-to-Cafe-Express kind of place. Kaling does not shy away from presenting herself warts and all, and the candid nature of her writing and photographs (all of which refreshingly seem to have come from the camera she keeps in her purse) breeds comfort and familiarity. Additionally, though Kaling skims the surface on some topics, her discussion of her childhood and school friendships was straightforward, funny, painful, and totally familiar. We would have been friends in middle and high school.
Sure, the book is not the deep, probing examination of the comedy world presented by Fey, but it’s certainly nice to spend an hour and half with a friend. And it’s also fun, if you are a fan of The Mindy Project, to recognize the real events and people that inspire favorite moments on the show. If you are looking for something light but intelligent, honest, and entertaining, I would definitely recommend Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns).
When my mother saw Johnson’s Life of London on my Christmas list, she immediately assumed it was by Samuel Johnson. For her it is perfectly normal to have a daughter asking for writings by18th century intellectuals. This time, however, that was not the case.
Johnson refers to Boris Johnson, the tow-headed, bike-riding mayor of London who shot to international fame, or at least recognition, during the 2012 London Olympics. I was charmed by his appearances on the Today show last summer and was intrigued when I heard he had written a book about life in London. He does not disappoint.
Johnson traces the history of London through the lives of its luminaries, starting with the ancient Celts and Romans and ending with Keith Richards and The Great Mayfair hotel. Some figures present are ones you would expect: Shakespeare, Florence Nightengale, Winston Churchill, and the afore-mentioned Johnson. Some might be less well known, such as Robert Hooke and J. M. W. Turner, but all significantly impacted the formation of London into the diverse, complex, and great city that it is. Interspersed throughout the chapters are side bars describing important inventions that appeared around the same time as the person being profiled, including the bicycle, the London Tube, and the modern toilet and sewage system. Though each person and invention stands alone, Johnson adroitly weaves the chapters together to create a revealing portrait of his beloved city.
Johnson, born in New York City and raised in London, has a wonderfully academic yet chummy style of writing. It is the kind of informative yet accessible style that I feel academics should be moving toward in their writing. Jargon-laden mumbo-jumbo does nothing to promote either academia or the topic in question. Johnson, on the other hand, gets it quite right. His intelligence and facility with language shine through, and personal anecdotes and “fun facts” (Dick Whittington didn’t really have a cat) meld comfortably with meticulous research and cogent arguments. At times slightly gossipy but never unprofessional, you have the feeling that Johnson is telling you these stories with a rather conspiratorial air. Yet Johnson is fiercely proud of his city and those who built it, and his love and pride permeate his writing.
I must admit, it took me longer to read this book than I was expecting, simply because its nature is partly academic, and for me, reading non-fiction is always a slower, though no less enjoyable, process than reading fiction. However, the book is parceled out in such a way that one could easily read it straight through or put it down and come back to it after a while. One can have as casual or as exclusive a relationship with the book as one wants. Johnson’s Life of London is a delightful, insightful, and educational read, shining a light on London itself through its well and less-well-known creators. I highly recommend checking it out!