Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Reading Roundup: Sassy Sleuths

From its back-cover synopsis, The Secret Life of Anna Blanc by Jennifer Kincheloe has got some promising components. It's a mystery set in Los Angeles during the early 1900s, and its protagonist is a spirited socialist-turned-sleuth. Anna is stifled, naturally, as a wealthy woman in this time. Her father prevents her from doing anything remotely independent and is basically trying to marry her off. Her impulsive behaviors have always seemed to be merely a flash of rebellion, spurred by boredom and frustration, but she catches wind of some mysterious deaths surrounding prostitutes and decides it's worth investigating because the police seem to just be sweeping it under the rug. Of course, she must do all of this without her father or fiance finding out about it...

This was a random book I picked up off the NEW shelf at the library, and it didn't totally disappoint. I'm not a frequent reader of mysteries, but I enjoy the ones that have precocious or spunky sleuths, especially female ones. This fits into that category; the story itself was entertaining enough, and I especially enjoyed the setting. Something about the writing, though, just seemed a little off throughout. Though this doesn't come from a typically "religious" publisher, it had some really...strange...phrasing/commentary, particularly on prostitutes and religion—not enough to be preachy but enough to catch me off guard and, on reflection, seem forced. It was a writing "style" (that may be too definitive of a word) that I felt would've been squelched and smoothed by a strong editor. Regardless, this is one of those books—like most mysteries to me—that serves its purpose as entertainment during the reading process but doesn't stick around once the last words are read.

Though I adore Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce series, its status as a mystery series automatically designates it into that "enjoy while reading, most likely forget afterwards" category. (What I'm saying is I don't mean that as a cruel comment; different types of stories serve different purposes, rightly so!) As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust is the seventh book in the series, launching Flavia into a new chapter after the definitive close at the end of the sixth. Flavia has been sent away from her home of Buckshaw, across the ocean to Miss Bodycote's Female Academy in Toronto. Flavia's mother attended Miss Bodycote's, and with the almost immediate discovery of a body stuffed in the chimney of her room, Flavia determines there's definitely more than meets the eye to her new environs.

It's easy to read each book in the Flavia series as a simple episodic mystery, but book six, The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, definitely seemed to set the series on a path with deeper character development for Flavia. Bradley developed backstory to Flavia and her family and triggered a move outside her comfort zone, the familiar settings of Buckshaw and Bishop's Lacey. It's almost like when a TV cast transitions from high school to college, and the setting, characters, and conflict suddenly change; sometimes it's successful, and sometimes it's not. I've read comments from readers who finished Chimney Sweepers with a sour taste in their mouths, because it prompts the debate as to whether it's a necessary transition or not—is Flavia's story an episodic one or a long-form drama? Is the mystery the main focus or is the character? I don't know, and I'm not sure the author does either. Flavia is a character that I bet many readers are curious to see developed, but the indecisive focus on the narrative may weaken future stories. It's a tenuous line to tow, I'm sure. For current and future Flavia stories, though, I'll just continue to accept as is, with no expectation of direction, because she is such an enjoyable character to encounter.

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