Author: A. A. Milne
My rating: 3.5 of 5
Mr. Anthony Gillingham has made a life of wearing many hats, switching from one to the next as soon as he has mastered the first. And his sharp wit and photographic memory make doing so rather easy–not that he doesn’t work at excelling at whatever he chooses to do. So when he stops in at the countryside residence of Mark Ablett (to visit an old friend who is also staying there on holiday) and discovers a murder has just occurred . . . well, why not try being a detective?
I absolutely love Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh series, so I was pretty excited when I discovered he also wrote other books, including this one, solitary mystery. For those who love fast-paced, tightly plotted mystery thrillers, The Red House Mystery is nothing like that. For those who enjoyed Milne’s children’s books, this is that sort of story, just for adults and a murder mystery. Which makes no sense at all, I know, but it’s true. This book is quaint and bucolic, there’s a period-specific air of leisure–and indeed a very period-specific vibe in general–that shine throughout in that natural way that historical fiction can never quite emulate. Which isn’t to say that the mystery itself isn’t interesting and perhaps even clever. It’s just developed in a more leisurely sort of way. I liked the characters, even though Mr. Gillingham is a bit larger than life–how many detective stories are written about characters who aren’t? In any case, The Red House Mystery isn’t groundbreaking or marvelous, but for a nice, easy-paced, fun read, I think it suits quite nicely.
Author: Richard Peck
My rating: 4 of 5
Blossom Culp, vol. 4
The year is 1914, and Blossom and Alexander are in their freshman year of high school. Things are beginning to change–like the popular girls’ crushing on Alexander, his newfound obsession with getting into the elite high-school fraternity, or the new suffragette history teacher who’s bent on educating the freshmen about ancient Egypt. Some things never change though–like Blossom’s spunkiness, Alexander’s complete disavowal of his ability to interact with spirits, and Blossom’s mother’s sticky fingers. So when an ancient Egyptian relic turns up in Blossom’s mother’s pocket, naturally Blossom gets interested. And when the ghost (ka, whatever) of an ancient Egyptian princess demands Blossom’s help, well, of course she’s got to get Alexander involved, though she’ll have a time and a half dragging him away from the miseries of his fraternity initiation. Well, while she’s at it, she might as well make the initiation a bit more interesting, too. . . .
Richard Peck’s books are superb, and I think the ones set in Illinois and thereabouts around the turn of the century are some of the best. He has such a feel for the atmosphere of the time, making it alive rather than stuffy and historical. Plus, these are some of the most absurdly funny books I’ve ever read. Blossom Culp and the Sleep of Death is all of that and more. Blossom has got to be one of the most amusing and lovable characters ever–while being someone who’d probably drive me nuts if I actually met her. Scruffy, saucy, and smart as can be–that’s Blossom. In this particular story, seeing her and Alexander growing up from children into young adults is really interesting and funny and kind of cute as well. The inclusion of spirits and historical (for Blossom as well as for the reader) mystery is classic for this series, but bringing in an Egyptian princess is something else. It works though, oddly enough. There’s enough historical detail to make it credible without feeling forced. And the combination of eerie mystery and absurd humor is perfect. For any readers upper elementary and older who enjoy a humorous historical story, Blossom Culp and the Sleep of Death is definitely recommended whether you’ve read the other books in the series or not.
Author: Elizabeth Peters
Amelia Peabody, vol. 12
My rating: 4.5 of 5
The year is 1914, and the tension surrounding the first World War is casting a pall over even the Emersons’ archaeological fervor. David has been imprisoned somewhere as a potential troublemaker, Ramses is the scorn of European society in Egypt for his pacifist views, Nefret seems to be drowning her sorrows in flirtation. Meanwhile, Turkish troops approach the Suez Canal, and it seems all Amelia and Emerson can do is watch and work half-heartedly on their unpromising wadi. Or at least, so it seems until they discover that Ramses and David are actually both in Egypt doing extremely dangerous undercover work for the British government. Of course, they can’t allow the two to face all that danger alone, so they immediately pitch in to help–as if Amelia could resist such a temptation!
Elizabeth Peters’ historical mysteries are consistently well-written, exciting, and full of character. Such was the case with He Shall Thunder in the Sky. It was really interesting in this volume to see a side of WWI history I’d never really gotten before–apparently there was a good bit more action away from Europe that I had known. And of course, Amelia and her family make any story more amusing with their absurd, larger-than-life characters and their bent for getting into any trouble that might happen to be around (or for manufacturing it if the situation demands). I really liked that, in this volume, Ramses and the other children are adults in their own right–they’re such good characters that it’s quite enjoyable to read the sections from their perspectives as a complement to Amelia’s own story. Plus the whole love story part of this volume is really sweet, even if you don’t much get that impression until near the end of the book. He Shall Thunder in the Sky is a fantastic blend of history, romance, archaeology, and espionage that’s truly a delight to read; highly recommended for anyone who enjoys historical mysteries.
Author: Richard Peck
Blossom Culp, vol. 1
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Alexander has never been one to believe much in ghosts, but an encounter he had in 1913 (the year he turned 13 himself) was one that couldn’t help but change his mind in that regard. His family was one of the up-and-coming social climbers in Bluff City, new money out looking to impress–or at least his mother was. And his sister Lucille was not averse to jumping right in with her. Alexander though, he mostly tried to stay out of folks’ attention. That wasn’t so easy though after his classmate Blossom Culp–a girl that he’d never particularly noticed before–said he was perceptive. To ghosts, that is. And that he had a ghost in the big barn out back. It was true, too, and the events that followed brought Alexander and the ghost to national attention. Although Blossom might have been the one to profit most from the affair. . . .
I’ve said it before, and I’ll repeat it often probably, but I love Richard Peck’s writing. The Ghost Belonged to Me was particularly interesting in that it combined his ghost stories with his humorous slice-of-life stories set in the Midwest around the turn of the twentieth century. And it somehow does both brilliantly! There’s a certain chill to Alexander’s ghostly encounters, although they’re mixed with a compassion for the dead girl whose ghost he meets and for her story. But more than scary, this book is immensely funny. Peck has this incredible knack for crafting characters who are, well, characters. They’re full of quirks that, combined with circumstances, are absolutely hilarious–and the understatement used at points only serves to amplify the underlying humor. Added to that, there’s a lot of solid history woven in so subtly that you don’t really realize how much you’re learning. And of course, the entire tale is told in Alexander’s unique voice, complete with colloquialisms and occasional grammatical lapses; it’s very well done and adds a lot to the writing. I would definitely recommend The Ghost Belonged to Me to anyone (upper elementary and up) who is interested in this time period, as well as to anyone who just enjoys an entertaining, funny story.
Author: Elizabeth Peters
Amelia Peabody Mysteries, volume 14
My rating: 4.5 of 5
The year is 1917, and the war is beginning to make travel extremely difficult. Not that that’s about to keep Amelia and her brood out of Egypt. Defying any danger with a stiff upper lip, the Emersons make their way from England back to their archaeological digs near Luxor, only to find that local tomb robbers have discovered a previously-unknown tomb . . . one they suspect might be royal. Of course, the family deems it their duty to find this tomb and protect it before the robbers completely clear its contents. Meanwhile, the family is kept busy on other fronts keeping Ramses away from the War Office and their attempts to bully/persuade him into doing more secret service work behind enemy lines. Amelia’s certainly got her hands full–and couldn’t be happier!
As with all of Peters’ Amelia Peabody books, The Golden One is a delightful admixture of mystery thriller, archaeological adventure, and historical romance of the best sort. Her portrayal of the setting is detailed and skillful without being burdensome–you get what you need to appreciate the setting, but she doesn’t spend pages on unnecessary description. The balance of the historical setting–the war and such–against the Emersons’ personal lives and interests is also excellently done, suiting the largely first-person style of the narrative. I also enjoyed in this volume having the contrast between Amelia’s own first-person voice–very Victorian, feministic, and full of personal witticisms–and the extracts from “Manuscript H” which are told in third-person from Ramses’ and Nefret’s perspective. The generation gap is clearly evident, and the contrasting perspectives are easily distinguishable and provide additional helpful information about what’s happening at any given time. Also interesting about this particular volume is the duality of the plot: one thread focusing on Ramses’ mission into the Turkish lines as a spy of sorts, sandwiched between two other sections focusing on the Emersons’ archaeological work and attempts to find the new tomb. It’s a bit unusual for these stories, but it works quite well. All in all, I think The Golden One is an excellent archaeological mystery for anyone even remotely interested in that genre, as well as for anyone just wanting an exciting and engaging story. Also of note, as this is the fourteenth volume of the series, it definitely includes numerous spoilers for previous volumes, but if you don’t care about that, there’s certainly enough background in the book itself to read it independently without needing to read the others first.
Written & Directed by Hayao Miyazaki/Produced by Toshio Suzuki/Music by Joe Hisaishi
Ever since he was young, Jiro Horikoshi has dreamed of the sky and the aircraft that inhabit it so gracefully. He would have loved to be a pilot, but due to his poor eyesight, that dream would never come to pass. Realizing this early on, he takes a note from his hero, the Italian airplane designer Caproni, and pursues a career in aircraft design. A combination of innate talent and unflagging work keep him on the path, designing better and better planes, always pursuing the ideal craft that exists only in his dreams.
Over the years, I have come to expect great things from Studio Ghibli, and from Hayao Miyazaki in particular–and I must say The Wind Rises is something special indeed. It is, at its core, nearly a documentary on the life of Jiro Horikoshi, designer of the Mitsubishi A6M Zero–a plane used by Japan during the second World War. Yet Miyazaki transforms this young man’s life story into something beautiful and spectacular. Jiro deals, throughout the story, with the impossible question: would you pursue your dreams, even knowing what you create may be used in war, or would you live in a world where you abandon your dreams and refuse to create? The telling of the story itself is fascinating–you are given snapshots of various important events in the life of Horikoshi, but each is filled out in great detail, enough to give a good idea of who the characters are. I love that Miyazaki included Jiro’s brief, fateful relationship with Nahoko his beautiful, sickly wife (although I find Nahoko herself a strikingly Mamoru Hosoda sort of heroine). All the aircraft that are included only serve to emphasize that this is a Hayao Miyazaki movie–they’re kind of his trademark. The art is classic Studio Ghibli–breathtakingly beautiful. I think the inclusion of certain rather surreal elements, particularly in Jiro’s dreams, adds a lot to the story as well. I think my favorite Miyazaki movies will always be his fantasies like Spirited Away and Howl, but The Wind Rises is pretty incredible as well–you should check it out, especially if you’re a fan of Studio Ghibli or of older planes.