Review ‘The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag’ by Alan Bradley

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This Alan Bradley story is deserving of 10 stars.  The irony, the wit and the revealing portrayal of 1950s English village life, is both hilarious and horrible.  Events are seen through the eyes of young Flavia de Luce, an implausibly precocious 11 year old girl who lives with her family in genteel decline.

Young Flavia’s encounters turn into forensic investigations and she has an inherent love of chemistry, brewing dangerous concoctions in her late grandfather’s lab.

The village of Bishop’s Lacey appears to be close-knit, yet even gossipy Mrs Mullet didn’t seem to know who or what killed young Robin Ingleby at Gibbet Hill.  The story really kicks off when well-known BBC puppeteer and bully Rupert Porson gives his last performance.  The scene-setting is brilliantly done and I felt immersed in the story from the beginning right through to the end.

Perhaps not a book for younger readers because they may get tired of the mid-20th century writing style.  Mature readers who like a quirky character will enjoy this tale.  I have never encountered the likes of Flavia de Luce, a strange mixture of Wednesday Addams and Bones.

But she certainly knows how to snoop or turn on the charm when necessary.

Generally the main players are conventional but it’s what I expected, having been raised on a diet of British books, magazines and television series.  Their dialogue and the descriptions of village society in post-war Britain were familiar to me – at least fictionally – and it’s clever how the tension and Flavia’s ‘fluctuations’ from girl to grown-up and back again is established.

Question: Apart from the shock value, what is the significance of Jack’s puppet face?  And I don’t mean who it represents.

‘The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag’ is book 2 in the current 10 book Flavia de Luce mystery series, and takes its title from Sir Walter Raleigh.  With my thanks to Goodreads friend and writer Chris Hall for recommending this delightfully different book.

Gretchen Bernet-Ward


Poetry Clipart 13Author profile

Alan Bradley is a mystery writer known for his Flavia de Luce series featuring this pre-teen sleuth with a passion for chemistry.  The series began with the acclaimed ‘The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie’.  See more books in the series at Penguin Random House.  Bradley is also a New York Times bestselling author of many short stories, children’s stories, newspaper columns, and the memoir ‘The Shoebox Bible’.  More about Alan Bradley

‘A Garden of Lilies’ Tales from Judith Rossell

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Page 39 “Peregrine was a disobedient child…”

With a knowing smile, this Victorian-style book of manners is reminiscent of the period of parenting when misbehaving children were given orders and told dire consequences would ensue if they did not obey.  Despite warnings, when a child in this book ignores an instruction, there is an aftermath of great magnitude.

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Page 28 “Jesephany and Keziah were unruly and wild…”

In “A Garden of Lilies: Improving Tales for Young Minds – by Prudence A Goodchild” children’s author and illustrator Judith Rossell has produced an atmospherically illustrated and tightly written volume.  She has also mastered the art of a left-right jab, hitting with swift endings which leave the reader breathless.

Each punchy short story closes with a judicious moral.  For example, Isadora daydreamed too much during her chores.  One day she daydreamed while idly brushing her hair.  Let’s just say she didn’t get to finish the task.  “Moral: For hair that’s glossy, clean and bright, Two hundred strokes, both morn and night”.

After Isadora’s tale, there is what appears to be a lovely page entitled “Care of the Hair” with a recipe for making Soft Soap which “…will improve both the texture and colour of the hair” until things get a bit nauseating.  Apart from kitchen scraps, the mixture must boil for hours until it forms a clear, thick jelly.

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“A Garden of Lilies: Improving Tales for Young Minds” by Prudence A Goodchild (author Judith Rossell) ABC Books Australia

Basically the stories are about kids being kids and the 21st century reader should see the endings for what they are – a sample of Victorian etiquette and psychology which we would not dream of using on children today.  Right?  Okay, explain that to your child and laugh.

This slim book is approximately sixty pages (with attractive binding and colour plates) and scattered throughout are “Interesting Facts” and helpful hints like An Economical Recipe for a Plain Cake, A Useful Compass, Parlour Games and my personal favourite, An Album of Sea-Weeds.  I will work on drying and pressing seaweed during my next holiday!  Hmm, would seaweed smell like that starfish I once brought home?

In closing, I will give a shout-out to Mr Lindon of Woolloongabba, Queensland (Page 45) who grew a giant marrow.  I think he must have read the book’s suggestion To Grow a Giant Marrow which signifies “A Garden of Lilies” is indeed a versatile volume!

I cannot give you a childproof safety rating but I think it is suitable for a sliding age scale and my own rating is 5-star.

Gretchen Bernet-Ward


Judith Rossell — Biography

Judith Rossell is the multi-award-winning author-illustrator of the bestselling Stella Montgomery series (Withering-by-Sea, Wormwood Mire, A Garden of Lilies and forthcoming Wakestone Hall).  Judith has written thirteen books and illustrated more than eighty, and her work has been published in UK, US, Germany and translated into more than twenty languages.  Before beginning her career in children’s books, Judith worked as a government scientist (not a mad scientist, a normal kind of scientist) and also for a cotton-spinning company (which made threads for T-shirts, denim jeans, mops and teabag strings).  Judith lives in Melbourne, Australia with a cat the size of a walrus.

ACCLAIM FOR WITHERING-BY-SEA AND WORMWOOD MIRE:
Indie Awards – Winner 2015, Shortlisted 2017
Australian Book Industry Awards – Winner 2015, Shortlisted 2017
CBCA Awards – Honour Book 2015, Notable Book 2017
Davitt Awards – Winner 2015, Shortlisted 2017
Prime Minister’s Literary Awards – Shortlisted 2015
ABA Booksellers’ Choice Awards – Shortlisted 2017
Australian Book Design Awards – Shortlisted 2017
Aurealis Awards – Shortlisted 2015

‘Behind the Sun’ Series by Deborah Challinor

In a dread-laden atmosphere of shocking sights and smells, the transportation of four convicts to the women’s gaol Parramatta Female Factory is as grim as their backstory.  Although hiding a terrible secret between them, these young women are resilient and struggle against the harsh conditions.

The Convict Girls four-book series written by Deborah Challinor follows four bonded female convicts Friday Woolfe, Rachel Winter, Sarah Morgan and Harriet Clarke who are shipped from London’s infamous Newgate Prison to the penal colony of Sydney Town, New South Wales, to work off their sentences.  The penalties for petty crime, like the strange new land, are unforgiving.

Set in 1832, the travails of Friday, Rachel, Sarah and Harrie jump off the page as each book tells the story from each woman’s perspective while moving the narrative forward.  Titles are Behind the Sun, Girl of Shadows, The Silk Thief, A Tattooed Heart.  As they work through their bond in different forms of servitude, the reader follows their friendship, the physical and mental strain, and their all-important futures.

Author Deborah Challinor skilfully expands and elaborates on their new lives (the homebody, the thief, the seamstress, the prostitute) while keeping the voice true.  She gets the more risqué messages across without unnecessary crudeness.  Her well researched, well written plots and strong supporting characters, like cruel Bella Jackson and handsome Dr James Downey, blend together to spin a gripping yarn, spiced with highs, lows, loves, laughs, drama and murder.

I love good historical fiction, this quartet is superb (look beyond the chick-lit cover art) and Deborah Challinor knows how to lure her readers.  The outstanding imagery, ripe for screen adaptation, kept me reading long after I should have turned off the light.  I strongly recommend this 5-star series and suggest reading the stories in sequence so they unfold in all their splendour.

Gretchen Bernet-Ward


AUTHOR BIODeborah Challinor Author PhotoDeborah Challinor is a writer and PhD historian from Waikato in New Zealand.  She lived in Australia while researching the stories for her Convict Girls series.  The books follow four young woman transported to New South Wales for petty crimes. The character of Friday Woolfe is loosely based on her great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Mary Ann Anstey who was caught stealing a silk handkerchief and sent out to Sydney Town on Lady Juliana, a convict ship dispatched in 1789 from England to Australia.  Deborah Challinor has written over 16 books, historical fiction and non-fiction titles. Website http://www.deborahchallinor.com/index.html

‘The Witch Finder’s Sister’ by Beth Underdown

A witch-finder compiles his list … To me, prologues are an unnecessary extension of the backcover blurb and I often don’t read them.  Resistance is futile when it comes to Beth Underdown’s deep dark 17th century historical novel based on the real witch-finder Matthew Hopkins.

When I read the prologue to The Witch Finder’s Sister I tried not to become smitten with the words, tried not to be intrigued by the premise nor overcome with a desire to read what sister Alice has to say, but I am already into Chapter 8 even though historical fiction is not my preferred genre.

As absorbing as I’m finding this tale, this is not a proper book review and “no correspondence will be entered into”.  But I will say Chapter 1 is claustrophobic and tension-filled, a classic example of how thoughts become words to become other people’s thoughts.  There is an epilogue under the guise of Author’s Note which I can live without reading.  If you wish to pursue the Prologue & Epilogue debate, check out  WordPress Blogger theryanlanz A Writer’s Path

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I will leave the review to Suzi Feay of esteemed The Guardian newspaper:

The Witch Finder’s Sister by Beth Underdown review – puritan or serial killer?
The Guardian Review of The Witch Finder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

 

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Gretchen Bernet-Ward

Here is the prologue to The Witch Finder’s Sister by Beth Underdown––
“1645, and the Civil War in England has begun its fourth year.  It is a war about God, and how best we should worship Him.  It is a war about who should govern, and why; whether the Parliament should rule, or whether the ousted King.  It is a war of thoughts, of words printed or hurled in anger: but this is also a war of guns.  Last year, at Marston Moor, more than four thousand men were killed.  Before this, women have seldom been hanged for witchcraft – one or two, every five years, or ten.  Eight were sentenced in Pendle, thirty years ago, when the land still knew peace.  But now this country is falling apart at the seams.  Now, all England is looking the other way: so there is nothing to stop Matthew Hopkins stepping forward.  Starting to make his list of names.”

‘Breakfast With The Borgias’ by DBC Pierre

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Author interview March 2011 http://www.thewhitereview.org/feature/interview-with-dbc-pierre/

Correct thinking and clear vision are applied to wunderkind Ariel Panek, a computer scientist and associate professor but he is powerless when heavy fog sees him stranded overnight in the rambling, dilapidated Cliffs Hotel on the Suffolk coast.  Without connectivity, Ariel is tormented by the “no network” signal because he is overdue to talk at a conference in Geneva where he will meet his undergraduate girlfriend Zeva Neely.

Meanwhile the odd hotel staff and weird guests are making Ariel feel uncomfortable.  A bizarre set of circumstances conspire to prevent him leaving the hotel.  He must fend off unwanted attention, cut through the Borgia family secrets and subterfuge, and try to battle his way back to normality.

Reclusive, modernist Booker prize-winning author DBC Pierre has loaded this eerie Hammer Films-inspired novella with his trademark blend of social, scientific and spiritual matters.  Gradually the layers are peeled back to reveal the chilling truth behind this unsettling tale.

Gretchen Bernet-Ward

Reviewer Notes:
1.  The woman in the story who shares my first name is definitely not me!
2.  If you are reading this, Peter, I’d love you to autograph my copy of the above.
3.  My review of “Release the Bats: Writing Your Way Out Of It” by DBC Pierre.
4.  Synopsis quotation: “You can be insecure and be a writer.  You can be unsuccessful and be a writer.  You can be a bad person and be a writer … You just have to write.  That’s where it gets tricky”.

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Writer’s Guide