32. The Help – Kathryn Stockett
I’m late to the game on this one, a chick-lit historical-ish novel that details the lives of black maids in 60's Mississippi and the white women they work for. A friend recently gave me the book, worried I was missing out on the pop culture of it all and wanting my take.
On the upside: there are some strong female characters, some actual history and a nice pace to the 600-page tome.
On the downside: Stockett is a white woman who loves to write in black voice with a heavy dialect, but never manages the same for her white characters. For a black character, “law” is substituted for “lord.” But the white characters never so much as split an infinitive.
The idea, telling the story of two black housekeepers and a young white idealist more enthralled with a career than a marriage, I think is to give us an on-the-ground look at a historically important time. There is something to be said for seeing the behind-the-scenes reactions from white and black characters – based on those in Stockett’s life growing up in Mississippi – when, say, Medger Evers is killed.
But the dialect is distracting to the point of caricature. Worse, the white woman meant to be a villain is so crudely drawn, you don’t really get a sense of *why* she has such a narrow view. Her pronouncements sound more like an aged segregationist, not a woman who grew up in the same world and time as our idealist. But there is no dimension to her beliefs. She exists as a straw man, to set up and knock down in our superiority.
So, in the end, it’s a fast and sometimes even fun read. But there is enough to distract from what, in better hands, could have been a better story.
33. The Sweetness At The Bottom Of The Pie – Alan Bradley
Flavia de Luce is a precocious and pretentious 11-year-old girl growing up as the youngest daughter of a stiff-upper-lip widower in post-War England.
Flavia is a lonely girl who finds comfort in science and a chemistry lab in her family’s crumbling manse that is straight out of the Addams Family.
When a stranger turns up dead behind the home, her yearning for adventure and understanding of chemistry turn her into a young sleuth. She works to piece every clue and fact together to solve the murder.
If it all sounds a bit too precious, it is. Characters like Flavia exist only in books and movies. In real life, they would surely be throttled and dismissed, not embraced, for their supposed charms.
Still, a unique plot – who knew stamp collecting, magic shows and British boarding schools could be so twisty? – and careful attention to detail make for a strong mystery. Flavia is wise beyond her years but still manages to be enough of a foolish girl to keep us on our toes.
34. Devil Bones – Kathy Reichs
Two seemingly unconnected murders in Charlotte, North Carolina appear to involve Santeria, voodoo, Wicca or some other supposedly dark religion.
Thank goodness Dr. Temperence Brennan – her name alone inspires restraint – is on the case. Rather than leap to conclusions like the local politico who plays fear monger, Brennan tries to unravel how the two deaths might be connected, or not.
Along they way, we get our usual dose of upper-level forensic anthropology, a bit of gallows humor and explainers on everything from the naming of Charlotte (after a 17-year-old German royal) to male prostitution.
The mystery this time is tricky, at least given where I thought it was going, it didn’t, quite. But more than that, this is Reichs’ chance to show why people fear what they don’t know, and how that lack of understanding can create any number of bigger problems.